Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Dealing with the Generals


Bangladesh's foreign policy on its eastern neighbour needs to be changed

For the last 47 years, since General Ne Win usurped power in a bloodless coup, Myanmar (Burma) has remained an epitome of dictatorship. The country is run by a clique of Generals who, armed with the money generated from lucrative timber and rice trade, has completely disregard the plights of their poor subjects. Under their rule Myanmar has become a prison for different nationalities, the diversity of which once made the country famous in the world. In the most brutal instance, in 1988, the regime forcibly evicted 300,000 of the country's minority Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh, creating a humanitarian catastrophe.

The story refuses to stop there: in November last year some Myanmarese naval ships illegally entered into Bangladesh territory, which is thought to be rich in oil, gas and other mineral resources. Even though Bangladesh Navy has repulsed the Myanmarese intruders, the country, it seems, is bent on making its western neighbour's life difficult. A few weeks ago, Myanmar army has turned up in Mongdu and Alitanjo to evict ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from their ancestral homeland. They forcibly acquired around 1,000 acres of arable land and distributed it among the Buddhist citizens of Mongdu town. The authority has also told the Rohingyas of the country's Sectors 6 and 7 to go to the hills or to take refuge in Bangladesh.

While the recent carnage at the BDR headquarters has brought the country's border guards on its knees, in the recent weeks, more and more Rohingyas are trying to enter into Bangladesh on different points at the border such as Palongkhali and Ghundhum. Most of these refugees tell of inhuman tortures and tribulations that they have gone through in the hands of their own security forces. More such exodus may be in the offing as the Myanmarese authority is reported to have been planning to build a new cluster of villages near the border. In fact, recent history of the Southeast Asian nation suggests that its government has been systematically pursuing a policy to change the demography of its Rakhine State.

Bangladesh's experience with the Myanmarese refugees has never been pleasant. Some of these refugee organisations heavily depend on arms and drug trafficking to fund themselves. To make it even worse, some of these groups maintain a strong relationship with Bangladeshi extremist groups.

There are signs that the diplomatic and military defeat that the country has suffered last winter over the oil and gas rigs at the Bay is not taken lightly by the Generals in Naypyidaw. Recently Myanmar has started to fence its border with Bangladesh, and it has strengthened its military presence in the Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh. The most notable addition in the junta's armoury is a few missiles, which the country has deployed near Bangladesh border. In the Arakan region alone, with the new deployment, the Myanmar army's strength stands at 500,000. A continuous supply of military hardware is pouring in; along with it the junta is improving the infrastructural facilities. Everything, in fact, indicates that the Generals in Myanmar are again planning to lay claim to the disputed waters of the Bay.


And they could not have got a time better than now. Our national border has never been so unguarded before. The Pilkhana massacre has left Bangladesh's border guards in tatters, because of which smuggling in Bangladesh-Myanmar border has increased. Taking its advantage, says intelligence officials, Bangladesh's eastern neighbour is nowadays sending more spies into Bangladesh territory.

How prepared are we then to thwart a second Myanmarese intrusion? Our military presence in the area, compared to new Myanmarese build up, is shabby. Take Kaptai power station, which, should the border skirmishes turn into a large-scale conflict, will become a natural target of the enemy fire. No step has so far been taken to create a defence shield around it. Our Navy needs to be armed with the newest military gadgets; new soldiers need to be recruited into the army. Given that a huge number of our boys and girls in olive work abroad in different UN missions, the number of soldiers that remain in the country is inadequate to fend off any adventurous threat of an invading force. It is time the government takes the matter seriously; in the changed global scenario, where energy security has become important, Bangladesh quickly needs build a million-man army. The government must also make military training compulsory for every able-bodied citizens, a six-months course on military study should be incorporated into Higher Secondary syllabus. On top of it all, Bangladesh must also equip its armed forces with the state of the art arsenals. A strong army, as the old saying goes, is the best deterrent. Bangladesh also has to make joint patrols and exercises with friendly countries such as the US, UK and Australia.

On the diplomatic front, China is Myanmar's only trusted ally. It has been told by the western media that the Myanmarese Generals have houses in China, in case a mass upsurge forces them to flee the country. China has also long been Bangladesh's friend; the country may seek Chinese help to dissuade the Myanmarese junta from carrying out a second misadventure into Bangladeshi waters.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Myanmarese junta is perhaps one of the most brutal regimes in this part of the world. While the world's media is preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, the Myanmarese government unleashes a reign of terror on its own citizens. After the cyclone Nargis hit the country's Irrawaddy delta last year, killing 200,000, the Myanmarese Generals deliberately dilly-dallied to issue the UN the permission to work in the densely populated Irrawaddy Division, a move that prompted the UN to call the situation unprecedented. Imposition of an economic and diplomatic sanction on such a vile regime has long been overdue.

As a nation that loves democracy, freedom and rule of law, Bangladesh cannot remain an apathetic observer in Myanmarese affairs. It is time we take the western capitals into confidence. Myanmar's last four-decade-old treacherous history shows us that to deal with the country's Generals one needs both a carrot and a stick. The sooner our foreign office realises it the better.