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The Rakhine Conundrum: How Should Bangladesh Respond to Operation 1027?

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The Rakhine Conundrum: How Should Bangladesh Respond to Operation 1027?

The rapid advances of anti-junta groups in Myanmar poses new problems for Dhaka in an already-sensitive region.

The Rakhine Conundrum: How Should Bangladesh Respond to Operation 1027?

Teknaf land port in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, just across the border from Maungdaw in Myanmar.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rocky Masum

Since October 27, 2023, Rakhine State has witnessed intense fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces and ethnic Rakhine insurgents, as part of the broader Operation 1027. The war has created a humanitarian disaster for Rakhine civilians and generated new political, economic, humanitarian and security concerns for neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh has already faced several problems owing to the conflict in the region, and the escalation of the conflict is poised to add new problems for the country.

Understanding the Conflict

Demographically, Myanmar is divided between the ethnic Bamar-populated heartland in central Myanmar and ethnic minority-populated peripheries in the northern, eastern, and western parts of the country. Since its independence on January 4, 1948, the Bamar people have dominated the politics, military, and economy of the country, while ethnic minority groups have been subjected to systematic political, economic, cultural, and military discrimination. Consequently, Myanmar has been facing insurgencies by numerous ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) since April 2, 1948.

The Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces, has directly or indirectly controlled the country since it seized power in a coup d’état on March 2, 1962. However, it has failed to quell the insurgencies. After a ten-year period of relative opening and civilian control, the generals seized power again in a coup on February 1, 2021. Since May 2021, a full-scale civil war between the military regime and the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), now aligned with various EAOs, has complemented the prolonged internal conflict in the country.

On October 27, 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – composed of the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA), the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the ethnic Ta’ang/Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – launched simultaneous offensive operations against military-controlled regions. Codenamed Operation 1027, the massive offensive took the overextended Tatmadaw by surprise, and the latter suffered substantial losses in personnel, equipment, and territory. 

Operation 1027 so far has resulted in the death or capture of thousands of Myanmar troops, police officers, and militia members, and the insurgents have captured several towns and more than 300 military installations across the country, as well as crucial border crossings with China.

New Challenges for Bangladesh

Operation 1027 has affected several regions of Myanmar, including Rakhine and Chin states, both of which border Bangladesh. 

Three districts of Bangladesh – Rangamati, Bandarban, and Cox’s Bazar – share borders with Rakhine State. Historically, Bangladesh has shared strong political, economic, demographic, cultural, and humanitarian ties with Rakhine. Bangladesh also has approximately 20,000 ethnic Rakhine citizens in its southeastern and southern regions.

Owing to the geographic proximity between Bangladesh and Rakhine, prolonged conflict in the latter has significantly affected Bangladesh’s national security over the decades. Since 1978, Myanmar has repeatedly launched ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Rohingya ethnic group, which is concentrated in the northern Rakhine State, and compelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people to flee to Bangladesh. At present, Bangladesh is sheltering more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees at significant political, financial, security, and environmental costs to itself.

The latest outbreak of violence in Rakhine State presents further political, economic, humanitarian, and security challenges for Bangladesh.

First, the ongoing conflict in Rakhine has created several threats to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and stability over the decades. These include the influx of more than a million refugees into Bangladesh, armed clashes between Bangladeshi and Myanmar border troops along the border, the murder of Bangladeshi civilians and the shelling of Bangladeshi territory by Myanmar troops, and the violation of Bangladeshi airspace by the Myanmar Air Force. Also, the Arakan Army engaged in border clashes with Bangladeshi border troops in August 2015. 

Hence, the intensification of the war in Rakhine State can create new threats to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and stability. Notably, it can create instability in the restive Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) region and southern Chattogram Division.

In addition, after dragging its feet over the repatriation of Rohingya refugees for years, Myanmar agreed to initiate repatriation in small numbers into northern Rakhine State in April 2023. A delegation from Myanmar visited Bangladesh to screen the to-be-repatriated Rohingya in early November 2023. However, the escalation of the war in Rakhine State can potentially derail that process.

Second, bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar is conducted primarily via the territory of Rakhine State. The monthly bilateral trade volume between Bangladesh and Rakhine amounted to around $24 million in 2022. Bangladesh mainly exports fresh potatoes, cement, apparel, textile wastage, soft drinks, biscuits, live eels and fish to Myanmar, and imports dry fish, chilled fish, ginger, onion, Burma teak wood, Garjan wood, plum pickle, red chilies and coconut from the latter. 

Owing to the escalation of the conflict in Rakhine State, trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar has plummeted, causing significant economic losses. According to an estimate made in November, Bangladesh is losing 30 million takas ($272,394) per day owing to the decrease in bilateral trade with Myanmar.

Third, in response to the AA’s successes during Operation 1027, the Tatmadaw is apparently implementing the “Four Cuts” strategy anew in Rakhine State. The Tatmadaw developed this doctrine in the 1960s to fight against the EAOs. Inspired by the World War II-era Japanese “Three Alls” policy (kill all, burn all, loot all), the “Four Cuts” strategy seeks to cut off sources of food, funds, information, and recruits for the EAOs, to sap their strength. The implementation of the strategy requires the direct targeting of the civilian population, the destruction of villages, and the displacement of the inhabitants. The Tatmadaw has so far used this strategy against myriad ethnic groups, including the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon, and the Rohingya peoples.

Immediately after the start of the AA’s offensive operations, the Tatmadaw responded by blockading roads and waterways in coastal Rakhine State. They have blocked the roads between towns and villages, and blockaded three key roads that link Rakhine State with Yangon and other parts of Myanmar. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Navy is supplying the Tatmadaw troops on the ground in Rakhine State with food, reinforcements, and military equipment. This appears to be a classic case of “Four Cuts” in action. 

This has resulted in the displacement of more than 26,000 people in Rakhine State, worsening the humanitarian catastrophe. This could potentially lead to the influx of new refugees into Bangladesh, which can create new political, economic, and security threats to the country.

Lastly, the escalating conflict in Rakhine State has the potential to degrade Bangladesh’s national security in several ways. In addition to suffering from the potential spillover of the war – such as violations of Bangladesh’s land border and airspace, which has happened in the past – a prolonged conflict in its neighborhood can destabilize its southeastern region. 

If the AA wins this war, Bangladesh will share borders with an unrecognized statelet. If the AA loses this war, Bangladesh could witness an influx of disguised AA fighters into its territory. If the war is stalemated, Bangladesh will share borders with a frozen battlefront. Moreover, the escalation of the conflict is likely to result in a spike in the inflows of illicit drugs and weapons into Bangladesh.

Thus, the escalation of the conflict in Rakhine State presents Bangladesh with a serious conundrum. 

The Way Forward for Dhaka

Taking into account the sensitivity of the Rakhine issue for Bangladesh, the country should carefully formulate its policies vis-à-vis Myanmar to further its national interests.

First, as a neighboring state, Bangladesh should try its best to minimize the suffering of the displaced people in Rakhine State by sending humanitarian aid, including food and medicines, to them.

Second, using the Bangladeshi consulate in Sittwe and other sources, the country should closely monitor the dynamics of the war in the Rakhine State. In addition, Dhaka should adopt comprehensive security measures along the volatile Bangladesh-Rakhine State border and do all in its capacity to stabilize the situation in the state.

Third, since the outcome of the war in Rakhine State is far from certain, Dhaka should meticulously analyze the situation and prepare appropriate contingency plans.

Finally, Rakhine State is endowed with fertile agricultural lands and sizable hydrocarbon reserves. Moreover, its geopolitical significance has been reinforced by Chinese and Indian interests in the region, illustrated respectively by the China–Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. Bangladesh can receive substantial economic benefits by enhancing its trade and other economic ties with Rakhine. 

Also, the geopolitical tug-of-war among great and regional powers, including China, India, and the United States, can affect Bangladesh’s national security. Hence, in addition to its ties with the Myanmar government, Dhaka should build up its ties with the Rakhine State government.

The upsurge in violence in Rakhine State poses serious challenges to Bangladesh. Amid such a situation, Bangladesh has a moral duty to assist the victims of violence in Rakhine, while protecting its core national interests. Therefore, Dhaka should formulate a clear, well-balanced, humane, and mutually beneficial policy to deal with the conflict across the border.