Myanmar’s Violations of Border with Bangladesh: What Does It Mean?

Havel once said that in dealing with oppressive regimes, we need to try to understand them. The post-coup turmoil and the presence of destabilizing actors at the top as Myanmar rulers have made the country an increasingly chaotic and unstable zone that extends beyond its borders. The continuous instability of Myanmar and its spillover effects after the coup in 2021 has created more concern for Myanmar’s neighbors than in the previous decades. As a democratic country, Bangladesh faces a dilemma to deal with the Myanmar junta. But, Bangladesh shows her pragmatic behavior with the Myanmar junta to maintain a peaceful coexistence. 

The recent landing of mortar shells at Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on Aug. 28 has created diplomatic and security dilemmas for Bangladesh. Within the gap of seven days, the fresh incidents of landing Myanmar’s mortar shells at Tamru in the Ghumdhum area of Naikhyangchhari Upazila in the hill district of Bandarban and the violation of airspace through crossing Bangladesh’s boundary are undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Bangladesh. The home minister of Bangladesh, ambassadors from many nations, and foreign affairs specialists condemned Myanmar’s firing into Bangladesh which is against international law and norms.

According to the Border Guards Bangladesh and Rohingya leaders living in Bangladesh have stated that from Aug. 31 to Sept. 9 (two days were off), the Myanmar Army continued its attacks, patrolling, and surveillance on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. On Sept. 3, the Bandarban area of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border saw a series of ferocious strikes from fighter jets and helicopters. The Myanmar Junta’s aggressiveness in the last few days makes it clear that the country has become reckless. It should be noted that Myanmar also violated Bangladesh’s airspace in July 2018. Myanmar helicopters flew over Bangladesh’s airspace at least three times in August 2017, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape the Myanmar army’s ethnic cleansing.

The recent incident is the result of the Myanmar Junta’s anti-insurgency activities in its domestic sphere that has extended beyond its border. For air and artillery strikes and violations of Bangladesh’s airspace, the Myanmar government unapologetically claimed that its military seized airstrikes after the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed organization, captured a border police outpost in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State. Since the military overthrew the government on Febr. 1, 2021, Myanmar’s junta has brutally repressed massive civilian opposition across the country. The military’s attacks follow a well-established practice of collective retaliation against ethnic minority populations in conflict zones. The junta government is continuing its “four cuts” strategy to the ethnic groups-dominated zones, in which the armed forces maintain control of an area by isolating and frightening the civilian inhabitants. 

It is reported that the AA attacked Paletwa city and six border stations in Chin State, which has sparked a new conflict with the Myanmar Army. Following that, the Myanmar army launched routine operations in these locations, assisted by fighters and helicopters, in an effort to oust and retake those posts. After twenty months of ceasefire, the fighting between the two groups assumes the political and strategic position of the Myanmar Army. From the political lens, the Junta government wants to get benefited from generating the rift between the two political parties of the Rakhine state; the Arakan Front Party (AFP), the Arakan National Party (ANP), and the National League for Democracy (NLD). From the strategic point, after the ceasefire, the AA has been enjoying the benefits of economic and political stability. Rakhine State is significant for oil and gas pipelines which is a great source of income for Myanmar. The SAC (the State Administration Council) leadership aimed to restrain the AA activities to minimize their resource extraction in the Rakhine state.

According to a report, on April 22, in Paletwa township, Myanmar Army soldiers engaged alleged Arakan Army (AA) members (Chin state) and the fighting killed four people. In May 2022, the AA threaten the Myanmar Army by stating a ‘final warning” because of re-building military and police apparatus, reinforcing intelligence, and enforcing the continuation of commerce and travel restrictions within and along the boundaries of Rakhine State by the SAC military. The AA took control of the outpost on Aug. 31. They killed 19 police officers and seized weapons, ammo, and other supplies. The conflict between the Myanmar Junta and the AA has sparked tension among the Rakhine people and its proximate border-sharing neighbor, Bangladesh. Despite international pressure, many assume that Myanmar Army is fighting again with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) because China and Russia are backing Myanmar. 

However, several times Myanmar army has shown its irresponsible attitude toward its neighbors. In May 2014, Myanmar fired on the Bangladesh border and killed one BGB and as a reaction, Bangladesh submitted a protest with Myanmar over the provocation. In 2015, four farmers in southwest China were killed when one or more bombs were released from a warplane of Myanmar. After that China summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to China and strongly condemned Myanmar’s army and sent fighter jets to patrol its border with Myanmar. But Myanmar sought pardon that its army’s aim was aerial attacks to target its own territory. Myanmar issued a formal apology for a cross-border aircraft strike on April 2, 2015. In December 2021, a mortar round landed in a sugarcane plantation in a Thai village in Mae Tao sub-district of Thailand, and in July 2022, a fighter plane entered Thai airspace to follow instructions of the military-appointed State Administration Council (SAC) to scrutiny the Karen State on the other side of the border. 

Myanmar has apologized to China and Thailand to maintain cordial relations. But after the first mortar shells attack in Bangladesh on Aug. 28, Bangladesh called Myanmar’s envoy and he exempted it as ‘unintentional’ without any apologies. The concern has become stronger when Myanmar attacked for the second time on the Bangladesh border after five days gap of calling Myanmar’s envoy. On the other side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the ambassador of Myanmar to Bangladesh three times in the past two weeks to express Bangladesh’s profound concern over an airstrike, a violation of airspace, and the launching of mortar shells that have landed inside Bangladesh. 

There are two speculations behind Myanmar’s provocative behavior toward Bangladesh. Firstly, by creating a fearful scenario on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and civil war in Myanmar, Myanmar wants to stall all initiatives of repatriation to delay the long overdue repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh to Myanmar. The civil war may also create the possibility of Rohingya’s infiltration into Bangladesh again. Secondly, Myanmar is indirectly inviting Bangladesh to war for shifting the world’s attention from Myanmar Junta’s atrocities in Myanmar, the continuous ignorance of international and regional communities on solving the Rohingya crisis, and increasing economic pressure on the Junta government. 

According to International Law, the Myanmar army’s action within eight kilometers of the border is unlawful and it is also prohibited to shoot at Bangladesh’s border. Myanmar’s most recent attacks are disrespectful to Bangladesh’s sovereignty, bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and regional peace. The Myanmar government has not officially acknowledged the incident or stated its position regarding the week-long attacks in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is being supported by international communities. On Sept. 10 Malaysia, Canada, and UK’s High Commissioners and Japanese ambassador showed their concerns about Myanmar’s reckless attitude to international law which negatively affects regional and Indo-Pacific security. 

Though the Bangladesh government has strongly condemned Myanmar’s violation of international law, Bangladesh shows its calmness by choosing diplomatic pragmatism. To protect Bangladesh’s own citizens, Bangladesh has increased law enforcement forces at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border at Naikhongchari point after people reported helicopter fire from the Myanmar side. On the other hand, Bangladesh has shown its firm belief in peaceful co-existence and friendly neighborhood policy to deal with the recent tensions. Undoubtedly, unstable Myanmar is a threat to Bangladesh and the region’s security. Despite serious provocations from Myanmar, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina’s visionary leadership avoided a military confrontation between the two countries. The State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Md Shahriar Alam stated that as a response to the deteriorating situation of Rakhine State, Bangladesh is better equipped. Prior to that, in 2017, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggested her government to remain cautious and not respond to any provocations of Myanmar, which was spread after the mass exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine State. This time Bangladesh is also following the ‘not-to-be trapped’ policy on Myanmar’s provocation and only monitoring all events at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. 

The post-coup environment has drastically intensified the domestic instability of Myanmar and threatened the region’s security also. Though Myanmar Junta is facing several threats and sanctions from different countries and organizations, the reiteration of violating international law and Bangladesh’s airspace shows the Junta’s aggressiveness toward regional peace and harmony. As a democratic and peace-loving country, Bangladesh only denounced Myanmar and called upon Myanmar’s envoy for warning without interfering in Myanmar’s domestic instability. According to many, if Myanmar continues to breach Bangladesh’s sovereignty despite Bangladesh’s peace-seeking foreign policy, the country should formally apprise international communities to take joint actions against the Myanmar Junta. After all, it shows that Myanmar is a threat to regional stability and security and perhaps with deeper implications for in the Indo-Pacific region.

[Image credit: Kaidor, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Aditi Chakrovorty is a Senior Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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