Monday, January 18, 2010

All is not Quiet on the Eastern Front


Bangladesh's relations with its eastern neighbour have hit an all time low

Since General Ne Win deposed the country's elected government in a bloodless coup in 1950, Myanmar (Burma) has remained one of the hermit kingdoms of the world. The country has kept itself isolated from rest of the world, and even though it borders Bangladesh, Myanmar has never occupied the attention at the policymaking level that it deserves.

Bangladesh woke up to the reality in early January 2001 when Myanmar started to build a dam on the upper stream of the Naaf River, which constitutes a large part of 340-kilometre long Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Exchanges of fire took place and in the midst of it all, Myanmar pushed in thousands of its ethnic Rohingyas whom the junta had evicted from its Rakhine State. The country stopped building the dam after two battalions of Bangladesh Rifles were posted there, but the Myanmarese generals are still to take all the Rohingyas back.

Meanwhile, those who were giving Myanmar a serious head at Bangladesh's Foreign Affairs Ministry in Segunbagicha again went back to a long slumber. It was rudely broken last year in November when two Myanmarese warships intruded into Bangladesh's waters to build an oilrig. Bangladesh Navy sent its own warship BNS Abu Bakar to thwart the intrusion, which was aided by intense diplomatic manoeuvring.

Myanmar retreated only to come back this autumn, a time when the sea remains tranquil. The country's generals, between last November and this year's August, have augmented its collection of weapons by buying missiles from countries as diverse as China, North Korea, Russia and Bulgaria. Of these ammos, the most lethal is perhaps North Korean Taep'o-dong-2, which is weighed 79,189 kg with a range of 4,000 kilometres, making Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Army, capable of striking anywhere in Bangladesh.

Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, thinks if the news is true then Bangladesh should raise the matter to different international forums so that the junta does not spring a surprise on us. "Equipping ourselves (militarily) should be our first priority now," he says.


In early January 2001 Myanmar started to build a dam on the upper stream of the Naaf River.

All is now not well on Bangladesh's eastern front-- the generals in Naypyidaw started to send troops to the country's border last month and by October 18 its total military strength stands at a whopping 50,000, not to mention the 50 tanks, anti-aircraft batteries it has kept at hand. Two divisions of the army are ready, armed to the teeth, as back-up only 50 miles off the Naaf.

While Myanmar is building up troops, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry has categorically denied any unusual Myanmarese troops reinforcement across the border. Foreign Minster Dipu Moni has told journalists that she cannot confirm the news. " "I had talks with our ambassador, an army officer, in Myanmar and he told me that it is a routine practice," she said, adding, “Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes also called the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka and the envoy conveyed him the same message," she has said.

Reality, however, does not reflect Dipu Moni's claim: Bangladesh Army, however belatedly, has started a massive deployment titled "Operation Nishchidro Prachir" (Operation Fortress), which has seen the country's military presence strengthened.

National security expert Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (rtd) criticises Dipu Moni's comment as "rather strange". He says, "Moving such a large element of a conventional force is not routine movement and is certainly against the norms of border management. Any such movement within a particular distance from the border, as agreed upon by the two sides, has to be notified to the other well in advance. One wonders whether that was done."

Gen Anam says Bangladesh's military strategists have unnecessarily remained indifferent to Myanmar's military ambition. "We have always considered the country (Myanmar) a doormat," he says, "but, now what?" He says that while we had been neglecting Myanmar and did not even consider it worth evaluating its threat potentials, the government in Yangon had been building up its military to a point that has now reversed the force balance in favour of Myanmar by a factor, on the average, of 1:3.

A leaked Bangladesh Rifles document obtained by The Daily Star suggests that the Myanmarese junta has sets its eyes on Bangladesh's St Martin's Island, which is strategically located on the tip of the Bay of Bengal. The report, which has been sent to the government, identifies the island as the main target of the Myanmarese attack should a full-blown conflict breaks out.

Gen Anam thinks it is high time that Bangladesh prepares itself to safeguard its national economic interests by properly arming itself. " One would like to think that the rulers in Yangon understand that coercion or use of force will not help resolve matters. Outstanding issues should be resolved through discussions."

Professor Ahmed thinks the government should take the issue of troops build-up to different regional and international forums. "We can engage different regional and international partners like China with us," he says.

Myanmar, however, has recently assured Bangladesh that its recent activities at the border is routine and Bangladesh has nothing to worry about. Professor Ahmed remains sceptical though; "It is very difficult to trust a dictatorship," he says, "there is no civil society in Myanmar, there is no independent media in that country. As there are no checks and balances, it is hard to take them at face value."

Without any shred of democracy or rule of law, Myanmar poses one of the greatest diplomatic challenges that the Hasina government has faced in its new term in office. Dhaka has to work through its intricate network of friends to create a peaceful solution to the crisis, and should negotiations fail, it must be ready to do what best the country, its people and its armed forces can do to safeguard its political and economic sovereignty.