Why do Bangladesh and India need transborder security cooperation on the Rakhine crisis?

By Kamal Uddin Mazumder 

The author is a security and strategic affairs analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The recent violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and ongoing civil war in the country has created panic among the Bangladeshi population living in neighboring areas. Already a flashpoint of conflict for years, the intensity of the conflict between junta forces and the Arakan Army has turned the region into a danger zone with broader implications for larger countries like China and India.

Since the beginning of October last year, under Operation 1027, the Arakan Army and its allied organizations have occupied the cities of Myanmar bordering Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand one after another. It is part of the ongoing civil war that began in 2021 as part of a series of anti-junta insurgencies. Lethal shells from opposing sides in the Myanmar conflict are now falling inside Bangladeshi territory and causing civilian casualties. This has created new concerns about the national security of the country and the repatriation of more than one million Rohingya refugees sheltered in Bangladesh.

Dhaka has strongly denounced the ongoing developments along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, labeling the situation as “utterly unacceptable” and beefing up surveillance and security in the bordering areas with Myanmar. The country also summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to protest the escalating border violence that killed two people on the Bangladeshi side.

Although no influx of displaced Myanmar people inside Bangladesh has been reported so far, there is already fear along the border due to the news that some 327 members of Myanmar’s border and security forces have entered the Bangladesh side. Bangladesh is conscious of the possible consequences of this predicament, even as it once again demonstrates good neighborly behaviors by providing them with care and shelter. So far, Bangladesh has taken the appropriate steps, disarmed the fleeing security men, and established communication channels to negotiate their return to Myanmar. The Bangladesh government is proceeding with care in returning Myanmar’s border and security force personnel, as Dhaka does not want to seem to be taking sides in this conflict.

Conflicts on the Myanmar side of the border will have a multifaceted impact on Bangladesh, including national security, economy, and geopolitics. Bangladesh has done the right thing by engaging with China and asking for its intervention as a key party with influence over the ruling Myanmar junta to diffuse the tensions. Dhaka is also in talks with India to ensure that neighboring Myanmar’s internal conflict does not affect Bangladesh.

The international community was overwhelmingly supportive of Bangladesh providing shelter to a sizable number of Rohingya people. However, the money required for their sustenance has been significantly reduced, contrary to the promises of the donor countries, creating a lot of economic stress for Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis is no longer treated with the same seriousness that international groups initially viewed it as. So, with fast-dwindling international aid, it is increasingly difficult for the Bangladesh government to accommodate and provide for such a huge number of refugees. Amid the current economic challenges, Dhaka aptly vowed not to accept any more refugees from Myanmar against the backdrop of reports of several hundred people, mostly from Chakma and some Rohingya, gathered on the Myanmar border to enter Bangladesh.

From Asia Times

Considering the Tatmadaw’s continued reluctance to take back the Rohingyas and provide them with citizenship, some think that if the Arakan Army can establish full control over Rakhine, Rohingya repatriation may become easier to some extent. The armed group has already announced the recognition of citizenship for Myanmar’s Muslim residents (Rohingya) as well as the inclusion of its members who remain in Rakhine as part of the future administration. But many of the Rohingyas cannot trust this announcement. They claim that the Arakanese ethnic minority in Rakhine has a negative attitude towards the Rohingyas. This perspective will complicate repatriation even more. The absence of a stable administration in Rakhine would make it impossible for Nay Pyi Taw to accomplish the promised and methodical Rohingya repatriation deal with Bangladesh. In addition, there is a great danger that the international community will create obstacles in the way of taking back the refugees in the civil war-affected areas. All these issues will make the prospects of Rohingya repatriation more uncertain.

India, too, considers the Rakhine conflict a security threat. The number of refugees seeking asylum in India from the newly Arakan-occupied cities has also increased in the last few months as the fighting has intensified. Among the new refugees are local residents of border towns as well as 416 defeated Myanmar soldiers. Although the Indian authorities sent all Junta troops back to Myanmar after diplomatic dialogue, the central government is considering erecting a border barrier with Myanmar and withdrawing visa-free border mobility for Myanmar nationals, citing security risks.

The Arakan Army, established in 2009 with the aim of establishing an independent Arakan, now has more than 30,000 soldiers. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) assisted the Arakan Army by training and arming it. In the 1980s and 1990s, the KIA trained a large part of the armed organizations of the northeastern states of India. In the past, India and Myanmar have carried out joint military operations against such militant groups. That’s why recent military successes by the Arakan Army and its allies in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin provinces raise the prospects of armed insurgency in bordering areas, renewing concerns among Indian policymakers.

From STR/AFP via Getty Images

Moreover, India has invested heavily in Rakhine to connect northeastern states to the Bay of Bengal. The Arakan Army’s victory has put Indian investment at risk. Paletwa and Sittwe are strategically important in India’s Act East policy. Based on strengthened political, economic, and strategic ties with the Myanmar military, India has been implementing the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) with Rs 3,200 crore funding, focusing on these cities. The project will reduce India’s dependence on the Siliguri Corridor and benefit efforts to connect northeastern states with Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. So, with the Arakan Army claiming to have captured Paletwa, in Chin State, and Pauktawe, near Sittwe, it has become a major concern for the future of the ambitious project.

Rakhine’s lack of effective government structure and civil order will continue to be a significant source of worry for the region, particularly in terms of humanitarian, security, economic, and political issues. A volatile security situation in Rakhine not only raises new migration worries but also presents a long-term security risk to both India and Bangladesh. This necessitates India-Bangladesh cooperation on cross-border security. Both nations should increase mutual trust and strengthen political and security ties.

Given that China is also experiencing comparable challenges, Bangladesh might convene tripartite talks on how to reduce tensions in Rakhine. Now may be a good moment to talk about security issues and reach an agreement on a plan of action for the coming days. Undoubtedly, allowing this conflict to fester and cross over into other nations unchecked would result in regional instability and severe national security challenges for all of Myanmar’s neighbors.

See more

Bangladesh summons Myanmar envoy over border clashes (The Star)
63 more Myanmar security forces take shelter in Bangladesh (Dhaka Tribune)
Bangladesh Will Not Let in Any More Rohingya Refugees – Minister (Reuters)
Ethnic armies’ ‘Operation 1027’ put Myanmar junta on defensive in 2023 (Radio Free Asia)
Over 400 Defeated Myanmar Junta Soldiers Flee to India (The Irrawaddy)
India, Myanmar conduct joint operation to destroy militant camps in Northeast (The Hindu)

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