Bangladesh perspective | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 06, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 06, 2010

National Security

Bangladesh perspective

BANGLADESH, lying between the Himalayas in the north and the Bay of Bengal in the south, offers the only land route connecting South and Southeast Asia. Any invasion into South Asia from the East must pass through Bangladesh; the Japanese tried to do just that in the World War II. The British colonization of India also started from Bengal when the Bay of Bengal became the point of ingress. Bangladesh's close proximity to both India and China, two rising power in the 21st century, adds to its geographic importance.
India shares more than 3000 km of border with Bangladesh. The border is well demarcated except few stretches totalling about 9 km that remains unresolved due mainly to lack of political will. India envelops Bangladesh on three sides; similarly, Bangladesh almost dissects the north-eastern India from the heartland. Lying only 30 miles north of Bangladesh is the strategically important Nathu La pass that connects India with China through Tibet. Despite rapprochement with India, the Chinese have not recognized the so-called “McMahon Line” or renounced claim on the Indian state of Arunachal. Thus, in the unlikely event of an India-China conflict, the access to or denial of the use of Bangladesh territory to the belligerent forces will be of utmost strategic importance. As India becomes an economic powerhouse its need for shorter, faster, and more diverse means of communication between the northeast and the rest of India becomes more urgent and therefore, the need to transit across Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh-Myanmar land border is demarcated, inflow of minority Arakanese refugees has been a source of tension for many years. The Bay of Bengal spans the vital maritime route between SE Asia and ME. Bangladesh has vital interest in the Bay, but its neighbours - India and Myanmar - dispute its maritime boundary claim. Unless resolved amicably, the maritime boundary issue could be a serious irritant in inter-state relations.
Water and Energy: Bangladesh's primary strategic concerns
While the demand for fresh water continues to rise in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the world, its supply dwindles. Some of the major rivers are being diverted upstream in India. The Ganges or Tista, once mighty rivers, have reduced to trickles. Lack of information from India regarding proposed Tipaimukh dam over the Barak has been a concern for Bangladesh. The Chinese government's plan to divert the Brahmaputra could be a major issue affecting millions in India and Bangladesh. Unless the riparian countries join together to ensure optimum use of water, there is the likelihood of conflict and tension in the region in future. Our industrial growth continues to suffer due to shortage of electricity. Meanwhile, a regional power grid could be established to import power from countries such as India, Nepal and Bhutan, which have great potential for hydroelectricity. Water and energy could be the two most important areas of regional cooperation or confrontation.
Bangladesh's national security priorities
Based on the discussion so far, it can be concluded that the danger of Bangladesh getting involved in an armed conflict with either India or Myanmar or with a country beyond the border is remote. Bangladesh's grievances with India could be addressed if the Mujib-Indira Pact of 1973 is implemented. Although the Maritime boundary has not yet been demarcated, the negotiation is already on with Myanmar and India, the prognosis so far is that a negotiated settlement will be arrived at with the spirit of compromise and cooperation. It is important for us to remember that rivers are the common heritage of mankind and an equitable share of the resources would benefit us all.
On the non-traditional front, however, there are quite a few challenges. The first is the threat of terrorist activities inside the country and across the border. All the SAARC countries have recognized this and they have signed a number of protocols to that effect. In the past, the Indians alleged that separatists from NE states used Bangladesh territory as sanctuary and even used our territory to smuggle in arms and ammunition. Bangladesh continued to deny their presence here. It is now alleged that some top-ranking security officials of Bangladesh were involved in the process. That is indeed deplorable, if true. These are the issues that we need to take care of for the future. In this respect the suggestion put forward by our PM to create a Counter Terrorism Task Force manned by security personnel from all South Asian countries will be a step in the right direction.
The neighbours have viewed Bangladesh's population as a possible security concern. But the good news here is that as the economy prospered and education spread, the population growth reduced. Since 1971, the population has doubled but per capita income has gone up nearly seven times. Instead of being afraid of hungry mass migrating across the border, our neighbours, India and Myanmar should invest here and enter into greater economic activities to the mutual benefit of all so that the people have no incentive to leave. One of our biggest security insurance would be to turn Bangladesh into a regional hub of transportation, transhipment, and transit that would attract investment and boost national economy. A powerful economy means a robust national security.
Bangladesh military and national security
Bangladesh armed forces are to provide a robust response to traditional security threats whenever and from whatever sources those appear. Building up an army, air or naval force is a long drawn out affair. Just because we do not have a threat in sight does not mean we have no need of an armed force. The purpose of the military is to ensure that the threat is not allowed to develop and nipped in the bud. A standing military provides quick response to crush the threat before it gains an upper hand. Our armed forces must be able to inflict sufficient damage to an aggressor to deter him from launching an attack in the first place, what is called deterrence capability. Given the financial resources that are made available now for the military, we would be able to further develop our forces to meet the challenges that might appear.
In the non-traditional sphere, we already have the threat of religious extremists who want to establish an Islamic state by violent means. We also have the extreme leftists who in the name of establishing a classless society are in fact, looting the countryside. Coupled with these are the separatist elements from across the border trying to use Bangladesh as sanctuary; arms and drug smugglers use Bangladesh as a conduit. The armed forces would be called upon to help the law enforcing agencies whenever required. Military's training and operational doctrine, force structuring and equipment procurement should reflect these urgent security imperatives.
Bangladesh armed forces had done a great job in peacekeeping missions worldwide. Although these do not contribute directly to national security, the goodwill that they earn in the international arena helps us boost our national image. Moreover, exposure to international arena, dangers and hazards of operations under different climatic, cultural and operational conditions enhances military professionalism, thus helping national security posture. Employment of armed forces in nation building works such as construction projects, disaster management, medical emergencies not only enhance the forces' professional capability but also contributes directly towards mitigating comprehensive security besides bettering civil-military relations.
National security is a vital issue for the nation, yet it is not often discussed in public. It is considered to be a classified matter best left to the military; ordinary citizen would not be privy to it. In the developed world research, debates and discussions are carried out in the universities and national security issues are in the open for all to participate. Thanks to organization such as Dhaka University, BIISS, BEI etc., we now have a pool of experts who could make important contribution in the security debate. While the issues are debated in civil society, media and on the floor of the parliament, the military and other security agencies would provide vital inputs so that a correct judgment could be arrived at. As the theoretical structure of the national security undergoes revision, we need to focus on the security challenges of Bangladesh, now and in the future, and prepare ourselves to face those challenges.
The author is a freelancer.

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