Watch out for trouble in southeast Bangladesh
The southeast part of Bangladesh shares border with the Mizoram state of India and the Rakhine state of Myanmar. This part is covered with extensive hills ranging from 300 to 1,000 meters or even higher, with hardly any modern communication facilities in the tri-border area. It is also covered with a dense forest of mainly bamboos, making observation from ground and air fairly restricted. This is a perfect geophysical condition for insurgents—who can hide away quickly—and hence can be a nightmare for regular forces.
In this region, insurgents and separatist groups are hardly impacted by the borders recognised by Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. It's also interesting that these three countries operate from differing political viewpoints: one being a democracy, another being a struggling democracy, and the third being a military autocracy. So, reaching a political consensus is challenging. However, the separatist groups can collaborate with each other or peacefully coexist, and take advantage of the porous border when facing pressure from security forces at home or the host countries.
This tri-border area is sparsely populated with various ethnic communities who primarily survive on shifting cultivation. They are generally antagonistic or indifferent to the administration. In his book "Troubled Periphery," Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik writes that the young boys here are absorbed in 3Gs (Girls, Guns, Guitars). Though India claims to have a peace deal with the separatist groups in Mizoram and Tripura—bordering the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh—it's not all that peaceful. And it's the same in case of Bangladesh where, though a peace deal has been in place with the PCJSS since December 1997, there are now PCJSS, PCJSS (Reformist), and UPDF armed groups.
In the Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar, there are also groups like the Chin National Army and the Arakan Army. A peace deal was signed in Myanmar too, but now the Arakan Army is significantly powerful and thus a serious headache for the junta. The Arakan Army runs a parallel administration in most parts of Rakhine, while the junta mostly controls the cities. Having a relation with one may antagonise the other. In this conundrum, the Rohingya and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya armed group, are claimed by the junta to be destabilising Rakhine. On the question of Rohingya repatriation, Myanmar State Administration Council's Chairman Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Arakan Army chief Major Gen. Tun Myat Naing have opposing viewpoints. Above all, there are geopolitics of the regional powers and global powers involved. So, how Bangladesh should navigate this murky water is a complex question.
What are the chances of traditional threats (overt military challenges) to Bangladesh in its southeast region? Of its two neighbours, traditional threats from India are not expected for various reasons. However, traditional threats from Myanmar junta cannot be ruled out, especially to chase their separatist groups. The junta has been accusing Bangladesh of harbouring its separatist groups for long. The purpose of any military engagement would be to achieve a political aim, and Myanmar has exhibited her political aim quite clearly. So, it's very important to identify what the "political end state" of Myanmar is.
What could be a non-traditional threat? What we are seeing now is a complicated combination of risks. Bandarban is the only district of Bangladesh that shares border with two countries. It is also possibly the only district where poppy and marijuana are cultivated with the patronage of groups operating there. Teknaf is the transiting hub of drugs. In addition, there are scopes for violent extremism and terrorism. However, these kinds of non-traditional security issues do not take place in a vacuum. Interestingly, they have the potential to destabilise bilateral relations and turn into traditional security threats. Separatist groups themselves are a source of non-traditional security threats.
Are there any threats lurking around the corner? The traditional and non-traditional threats to Bangladesh emanating from the secured environment in southeast are fairly easy to comprehend, as various agencies are more or less preparing to avoid surprise. It can be said that they are preparing based on what is happening now, and possibly not on what is lurking around the corner. There are more than 460,000 children growing up in the Rohingya camps inside Bangladesh without proper education, hopes and dreams. They have seen unimaginable horrors in their short lives. In 2017, many of them saw their mothers being violated. For them, there is no bottom line. By 2030, most will be adults—homeless, with trauma in their minds and hatred in their hearts. Without education, hopes and dreams, it is unthinkable what monsters they might turn into if exploited, and if this issue is not addressed.
There are two options for us: we can address it now, or wait for it to be addressed later when it turns into a full-blown security situation. As a student of security studies, I understand that it is coming, and it is not going to be only Bangladesh's problem. It will have regional and global ramifications.
So what are the choices for Bangladesh? To address all traditional and non-traditional security issues in the southeast, Bangladesh should be able to foresee what is coming and prepare accordingly, rather than "fire-fight" events when they occur. The situation in southeast, especially the Rohingya issue, should not be taken in a business-as-usual manner. A dedicated meritocratic specialist team should be designated to handle issues with Myanmar, because the Tatmadaw—Myanmar's military—is a cunning, smart and meritocratic organisation. We have to read the military and political end state of Myanmar and devise appropriate courses of action.
India has its own interests that may not align with ours. So, jumping on the bandwagon with India may be counterproductive. Then, there are the geopolitical dimensions involving China and Quad. Maintaining a balance is equally important to ensure the synergy of all lines of operations—i.e. diplomatic, economic, political, cultural and military. In the military line, military diplomacy and developing a credible deterrence could be stabilising factors against the Tatmadaw's misadventure, if any.
Lt Gen Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, PhD, is a retired officer of Bangladesh Army.