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Crisis at the Bangladesh-Myanmar Border: A Looming Regional Challenge

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Crisis at the Bangladesh-Myanmar Border: A Looming Regional Challenge

From troops crossing the border to shells landing on Bangladeshi soil, Myanmar’s civil war continues to spill into Bangladesh – and beyond.

Crisis at the Bangladesh-Myanmar Border: A Looming Regional Challenge
Credit: Depositphotos

On February 4-5, over 100 Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) personnel illegally crossed the Bangladesh–Myanmar border, and were disarmed and interned by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). Beyond that, southeastern Bangladesh is currently facing persistent attacks, including gunfire, mortar attacks, and gunship strikes, from the Myanmar forces. The intense fighting between the Myanmar government forces and the insurgent Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin States has created a serious security threat to Bangladesh.

Historically, Bangladesh has shared a complex relationship with Myanmar. Repeated expulsions of ethnic Rohingya from northern Rakhine State into Bangladeshi territory since 1978, violations of Bangladesh’s land and maritime borders as well as airspace by Myanmar forces, murders of Bangladeshi troops and civilians by Myanmar’s border forces, and its designs on Bangladeshi territory have occasionally marred the relations between Dhaka and Naypyidaw. 

Since August 2017, the presence of more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Myanmar’s obstinate refusal to repatriate the refugees, have strained the bilateral ties between the two countries. The beginning of a full-scale civil war in Myanmar between the military-controlled government and the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), allied with various ethnic armed groups, in May 2021 has further complicated the Bangladesh–Myanmar relationship.

On October 27, 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance – consisting of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – and its allies launched a multi-pronged offensive, codenamed Operation 1027, against the Myanmar government. Since then, the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army has been locked in fierce battles against the Myanmar Armed Forces (also known as the Tatmadaw) and the BGP in Rakhine and Chin States. So far, it has captured a significant chunk of territory, including several towns such as Paletwa and Pauktaw, routed several Tatmadaw battalions, overrun nearly all border outposts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and seized significant amounts of military equipment. The situation has turned so critical that the Myanmar government has been compelled to impose a curfew in Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine State.

Bangladesh: Caught Between Crossfires

The ongoing war in Myanmar, and its latest manifestation in the form of Operation 1027, has negatively affected Bangladesh from the very outset. The escalation of violence in Rakhine State has curtailed Bangladesh’s bilateral trade with Myanmar to a significant extent. In addition, Bangladesh has been facing serious challenges along its border with Myanmar over the past weeks owing to the intensification of the war across the border.

First, the southeastern border areas of Bangladesh, particularly the Naikhongchhari subdistrict of Bandarban District and the Teknaf and Ukhiya subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar District, have been subjected to intermittent gunfire and mortar fire originating from Myanmar territory. In one instance, Bangladeshi territory was subjected to strikes by Myanmar Air Force helicopter gunships. Two Bangladeshi citizens have been killed and several more were wounded in these attacks, and houses and vehicles were damaged. As a result, more than 3,000 Bangladeshi citizens have fled the border areas in Naikhongchhari. In addition, schools have been closed, and the movement of people and vehicles has been restricted.

Second, circumstantial evidence suggests that the Tatmadaw is implementing the brutal “four cuts” strategy in Rakhine State to root out the insurgency. Reportedly, at least 81 civilians have been killed, hundreds of civilians have been wounded, and more than 120,000 people have been internally displaced. This has created a humanitarian catastrophe in the region, and could potentially trigger a new large-scale influx of refugees into Bangladesh. Already, two civilians from Rakhine State have taken shelter in Bangladesh.

In particular, continued violence in Rakhine State can unleash a new wave of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, and add to the country’s already acute refugee crisis. Shelling by the Tatmadaw has so far killed at least 12 Rohingya civilians and wounded dozens more in Hpon Nyo Leik village in Maungdaw District of Rakhine State. This has reportedly triggered several thousand Rohingya to move near Bangladesh’s border, apparently intending to enter Bangladeshi territory. 

At the same time, the intensification of the war in Myanmar has further stalled the Rohingya repatriation process, which is Bangladesh’s preferred solution to the refugee crisis. The ongoing war in Rakhine State has provided the Myanmar government with a perfect pretext to postpone indefinitely the pilot project for Rohingya repatriation. Meanwhile, the NUG has recently stated that they are willing to repatriate the Rohingya only after the government in Naypyidaw is overthrown. Thus, the NUG is also indirectly postponing the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Finally, the intrusion of armed Myanmar troops into Bangladeshi territory is a direct threat to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and security. Bangladesh has sheltered them for humanitarian reasons, but this phenomenon is further destabilizing the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and creating acute security concerns for Dhaka.

Myanmar’s Violation of International Law

According to Article 3 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, no state has the right to intervene directly or indirectly in a non-international armed conflict in another state. The ongoing civil war in Myanmar is primarily a non-international armed conflict. On its part, Bangladesh has maintained strict neutrality concerning the war in Myanmar per its traditional foreign policy principles. It has neither conducted any type of attack on Myanmar nor indirectly intervened in the ongoing war in Myanmar in any way. Thus, Bangladesh is diligently adhering to international law with regard to the war in Myanmar.

On the other hand, Myanmar has persistently violated international law over the years with near impunity. For instance, the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by the Myanmar government in 1978, 1991-1992, and 2017, and the crises that these genocidal campaigns brought upon neighboring Bangladesh were blatant violations of international law. At this very moment, Myanmar is again violating international law concerning Bangladesh.

Article 2(4) and Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations stipulate that U.N. member states must refrain from using force in their international relations except in self-defense. Myanmar has so far conducted several attacks on Bangladeshi territory, resulting in casualties among Bangladeshi civilians. Moreover, Myanmar troops have illegally intruded into Bangladeshi territory. In addition, the Myanmar government has created such severe conditions in the Rakhine State that Bangladesh may face a new influx of refugees from the region. Hence, under international law, Myanmar’s conduct toward Bangladesh is illegal and unjustifiable.

Duty of the International Community

The international community, led by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), has so far failed to constrain Myanmar’s actions. Motivated by their own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests, and now largely distracted by the Russia–Ukraine War and the conflict in the Middle East, the rest of the world has done little to stop the ongoing violence in Myanmar or hold the country accountable for its actions. This passivity of the international community has only contributed to the degradation of international law and the erosion of international norms.

However, growing instability inside Myanmar and along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border can potentially destabilize the whole region, including South and Southeast Asia. The war in Myanmar has already negatively affected Bangladesh and India, and to a smaller extent, China and Thailand. It has the potential to metamorphose into a larger regional crisis with severe implications for international security. 

Hence, the dual interests of upholding international law and ensuring regional and international security should motivate the international community to undertake necessary measures prescribed in the U.N. Charter to stem the tide of violence originating from Myanmar.