Strategic troika engages with Myanmar military

Bangladesh, Japan, and India have formed a strategic partnership with the Myanmar military

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Fumio Kishida at his office in Tokyo, Japan, on Sept. 3, 2021. [Photo credit: Shoko Takayasu—Bloomberg/Getty Images]

According to media reports, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has reiterated his country’s support for Bangladesh’s efforts to repatriate the Rohingya to Myanmar. He said Bangladesh and Japan have upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership. Bangladesh has sheltered nearly one million displaced persons from Myanmar and we will continue to support its efforts. 

The continued presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh poses a threat to regional security as extremism and cross-border crime could worsen. Bangladesh spends $3.6 billion a year, or $300 million a month, to help the persecuted Rohingya. This is putting great pressure on the country’s economy. Despite diplomatic efforts by Bangladesh, UN General Assembly sanctions and approved resolutions, the United States’ drafting of the Burma Law, and the adoption of ASEAN’s five-point consensus in April 2021, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has not yet been resolved.

Bangladesh’s three close allies China, Russia and India have been asked to help the Rohingya crisis. They have promised to do so but have failed to do so, or are unwilling due to their own geopolitical agendas.

Japan, a close ally of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, should take a leadership role in dealing with the Rohingya issue. The Japanese government has always stood by Bangladesh in resolving the crisis and Japan believes that the resolution of the crisis can only be achieved through a swift, safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas to Rakhine.

It is essential for Myanmar to create favorable conditions in Rakhine State for the repatriation of Rohingyas. Japan urges the Myanmar government to take stronger measures to repatriate the Rohingya and will continue to communicate this request to Myanmar until the issue is resolved.

In 2019, Japan offered to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue and said that dialogue between the two countries would continue. Japan wants a speedy solution to the Rohingya issue, finding their long-standing position worrisome. Japan is keen to assist the ongoing talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speed up the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has developed an outlook for peace in the Indo-Pacific region through dialogue and understanding. 

Areas of engagement are also important. Most documents emphasize securing global trade, exploring economic opportunities, developing connectivity, supporting technological development and combating climate change. Japan has the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt Initiative (BIG-B).

Bangladesh and Japan have already decided to work together. Bangladesh’s Matarbari deep sea port has become a strategic issue for Japan and India for several reasons. Because the Quad partners aim to counter Chinese influence.

The geopolitical importance of Bangladesh’s first deep-sea port, Matarbari, was evident during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to India in March 2023. The port has emerged as an important area for the free and open Indo-Pacific agenda.

In the same month, the Japan International Cooperation Agency agreed to give a new loan of 165 billion yen (1.2 billion) to Bangladesh in the infrastructure construction sector. During his visit to New Delhi, Kishida said that Tokyo wants the development of states in South Asia from the Bay of Bengal to Northeast India in cooperation with both Bangladesh and India. Due to this, a discussion meeting was held in Agartala a few days ago.

Hence Matarbari would not only be the most convenient port but also the most prudent choice for Indo-Japan, as Dhaka has much more cordial relations than New Delhi’s other neighbours. Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Japan will benefit from this opportunity. In this case Japan can work together with Myanmar and Bangladesh. But before that, Japan must play a role in improving relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh by solving the ongoing Rohingya issue.

Bangladesh is now close to adopting the Indo-Pacific strategy. If Japan plays its role before China plays its role, Japan’s acceptance in the region will increase. Therefore, Japan has a strategic advantage in developing Myanmar-Bangladesh relations and solving the Rohingya problem.

Both Bangladesh and Myanmar have economic relations with Japan. Japan attaches importance to relations with these two countries. As a development partner, Japan is interested in helping Bangladesh and Myanmar solve this problem. Japan has extensive investments in both countries.

310 Japanese companies are supporting the development of Bangladesh. Out of a sense of responsibility and morality, Japan has been working silently since the beginning of the Rohingya problem and has been active in solving it. Japanese ambassador’s working in Bangladesh have visited Rohingya camps many times at different times.

The Japanese continue to strive to find a permanent and sustainable solution to problems at individual, organizational and governmental levels. The people of Japan, various organizations and the Japanese government continue to support the Rohingya camps by providing daily necessities and services.

The Japanese government is continuing to communicate with various international organizations such as the Myanmar government, ASEAN and G-7 to resolve Rohingya’s citizenship, repatriation and environmental issues diplomatically. Japan wants a durable solution to the ongoing Rohingya issue and is ready to provide any kind of assistance to Bangladesh in this regard.

Several human rights groups have so far condemned Japan’s position. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report questioned the Japanese government’s response to the situation. Amnesty International’s deputy East Asia director Lisa Tassey told diplomats that Japan was on the wrong side of history when it came to Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya.

The Rohingya crisis has received little attention from Japan, the leader of Asia’s liberal democracies and a long-time strategic, economic and humanitarian supporter of Bangladesh. It has not voted on any UN resolution on Myanmar. Although the Burmese government regularly mistreats the Rohingya and other minorities, Japan has provided the country with financial and other aid for 70 years.

Myanmar has long been a reliable friend of Japan and now Japan wants to do good business in Myanmar. Japan has made significant progress considering Myanmar’s strategic location and China’s growing economic influence. Government development investment and foreign direct investment have made Myanmar a playground for investors. Both the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) have government development projects in Myanmar.

Myanmar has become important in Japan’s geopolitical game. Japan is increasing its financial commitment to the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt, which includes the Special Economic Zone (SEZ), energy sector and communications sector.

A significant amount of money was invested in the Thilwa Special Economic Zone and Hydropower Plant Rehabilitation Project. Myanmar and Japan organized the Rakhine State Investment Fair in 2019 to boost investment.

Beyond military-to-military cooperation, Japan plays a very important role in Myanmar politics. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government has given more than $20 million in aid and development funds to Myanmar.

Bangladesh will have to put pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingyas to Myanmar, which will not happen relatively soon. Japan, while an economic powerhouse in Asia and a strategic friend of Myanmar, can also portray itself as a friend of Bangladesh by encouraging the Tatmadaw to repatriate the Rohingya.

The protracted Rohingya crisis is a threat to Japan and Japan should take initiatives to strengthen cooperation in areas such as preferential trade agreements, blue economy, power generation, maritime trade and regional connectivity.

In line with its pacifist constitution, Japan must abandon its cold-blooded policy and take a strong stand for human rights and equality in all multilateral forums related to the Rohingya tragedy.

There had always been tension along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Along the 271-kilometer sea and land boundary between the two nations, two have a history of conflict. For instance, a border battle with the Myanmar military in 1978 necessitated the deployment of Bangladeshi troops along the border. When Myanmar sent out its naval ships to place a Korean drilling rig in our exclusive economic zone close to St. Martin’s Island in 2008, Bangladesh too came dangerously close to having a maritime conflict. But the current issue really began in 2017 with the exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar.

The entire world is aware that in 2017, more than a million Rohingya refugees sought safety in Bangladesh. These refugees have been hosted by Bangladesh on humanitarian grounds. To maintain regional stability, the Rohingya refugee situation must be solved.

Bangladesh is under great pressure due to the current Rohingya crisis. In dealing with this crisis, the country has had to face, and continues to face, some new diplomatic realities. It suddenly discovered that some of Bangladesh’s long-time friends were no longer with it. It has largely failed to achieve the expected results by applying traditional diplomatic methods to resolve the crisis. Therefore, there is a need for new thinking in the successful application of the various methods of modern diplomacy. Such as economic diplomacy, military diplomacy, cultural diplomacy etc. Military diplomacy is a special strategy among the strategies used by various countries to protect the country’s interests and strengthen the state’s diplomatic position in the international arena, and both its influence and application in the current world are increasing.

What did Bangladesh at that time? First and foremost, Bangladesh found a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the tension it currently experienced at the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. There had never be any notion that it can resolve the issue through violence or armed war. But diplomatic action alone is insufficient.

It must be supported by deterrents because deterrents are what give diplomatic actions bite. Some international experts have also contended that the military balances are likely skewed in favor of Myanmar, making it challenging for us to demonstrate an effective level of deterrence. However, Bangladesh made an effort to make sure that its diplomatic actions have a solid foundation.

In an effort to deliver protest notes to the Myanmar ambassador, foreign ministry has so far used diplomatic channels. It hasn’t changed anything. In addition to civilian diplomacy, the Bangladesh government has taken a step forward in solving the border and Rohingya crisis through successful military diplomatic activities. IT must be of no surprise that in special circumstances, a country’s military diplomacy plays an in strumental role in managing foreign relations.

Relations between the two countries are now at a chilly level, with rounds of talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar surrounding the Rohingya crisis and Myanmar’s last-minute bungling of repatriation. In such a context, Bangladesh is looking for a possible solution to this crisis in military diplomacy.

Just like political diplomacy, military diplomacy has had positive discussions with Myanmar’s military leadership to resolve the Rohingya crisis, and in terms of defense cooperation, the relationship between the two countries will accelerate and strengthen mutual trust with this friendly country.

The Bangladesh army and border guard have seen success in military diplomacy before. In May 2014, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) member Naik Mizanur Rahman was killed in firing by Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP), causing intense tension on the border between the two countries.

Later, on the instructions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the then BGB Director General (DG) took the initiative to develop bilateral relations with Myanmar Border Guard Police. In June of that year, he led an 8-member Bangladesh delegation to a meeting of the BGB and Myanmar Police Force (MPF) chiefs in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

This was the BGB’s first meeting with the Myanmar Police Force (MPF). The meeting was considered as a milestone in the development of the border forces of the two countries. BGB and BGP worked together for a long time by accepting the land border agreement during the visit of the then BGB Director General.

This brings relief to Bangladesh’s 261 km border with Myanmar. Based on that meeting, Myanmar then expressed good neighborly behavior with Bangladesh.

A Myanmar military commander has visited Bangladesh Army chief General in Dhaka in an apparent attempt to improve relations and boost regional security on October 27, 2022. 

According to ISPR statement, the Myanmar military’s special operation commander, Lieutenant General Phone Myat, explained the situation in Myanmar and how the junta was trying to maintain law and order while working with friendly countries.The statement said Bangladesh army chief discussed improving military relations, discussions between commanders and training exchanges. He called for Myanmar to work with Bangladesh to ensure regional security and the rapid repatriation of the Rohingya community. Myanmar’s delegation expressed interest in cooperating in professional growth and training exchanges, increasing friendship and solving problems bilaterally, the statement said.

Army chief General Shafiuddin stated in September that Bangladesh’s armed forces were prepared to act if Myanmar’s troops continued to fire across the border while pursuing the Arakan Army. He claimed that he complained strongly to his colleague in Myanmar about the shelling, gunfire, and interference with jet and drone flights that resulted in the death of a Rohingya refugee and injuries to others in the Bandarban district.

Tatmadaw, the military of Myanmar, has been engaged in combat with the AA in northern Rakhine State, close to the Bangladeshi border. Since August, Bangladesh has complained to the international community about fighter jet and drone flights over its territory as well as mortar and machine gun rounds that cross the border.

Mohammad Ikbal, a 17-year-old Rohingya teenager, was killed by at least three mortar rounds that were launched into Bangladesh on September 16. Six other people were also hurt. The visit was welcomed and is a great development.

A battalion-level flag meeting between Border Guard Bangladesh and Myanmar Border Guard Police on Sunday decided to improve bilateral relations between the two countries, while the Myanmar side regretted the recent incidents of shelling along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.The meeting stressed the need to take necessary steps to boost communication, confidence, and trust between the border guarding forces of the two ‘friendly countries.’

Although it has a long history, military diplomacy is currently being addressed in several nations. The Rohingya issue and the most recent border dispute have a negative impact on the peace, security, and stability of the region. Regional peace and security will be threatened by the Rohingya repatriation’s delay. Military influence and diplomacy may play a decisive role in ending the Rohingya Crisis. Additionally, given that Myanmar is currently governed by a military government, the military’s position will be able to strengthen bilateral ties. Bangladesh foreign ministry can therefore develop plans and measures to end the Rohingya issue with this goal in mind. The solution to the border conflict between Bangladesh and Myanmar lies in multilateral diplomacy. Strengthening military diplomacy is necessary in this regard.

Although Bangladesh and Myanmar share a border of 271 kilometers, the Rohingya refugee crisis has been a long-standing bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh. But in order to assist in resolving this regional humanitarian crisis, both involved parties must participate in meaningful political dialogue. To establish a long-lasting political solution, Myanmar and Bangladesh could use military diplomacy as a tactic.

Basically, there should be regular exchanges of visits, training sessions, and joint exercises between the military forces of Bangladesh and Myanmar. These will lessen mistrust while boosting assurance and comprehension. Additionally, this may assist in resolving the region’s ongoing Rohingya refugee problem.

Bangladesh and Myanmar must forge military-diplomatic ties in order to successfully handle the Rohingya repatriation process. The Rohingya situation might be resolved with the use of military diplomacy and clout. The military role will be able to promote bilateral relations because Myanmar is governed by a military regime.

Military diplomatic communication is an effective strategy in strengthening relations with neighboring states. As Myanmar is Bangladesh’s only neighboring country after India, its strategic importance is undeniable for Bangladesh. It has tried all kinds of bilateral and multilateral efforts to deal with the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, but so far, no promising results have been achieved. The influence of the military on state power in Myanmar is immense. Apart from that, the current Rohingya crisis falls within the ambit of the army. As a result, any move to deal with the crisis without involving the country’s army is bound to fail. Had there already been a close professional relationship between the Bangladesh and Myanmar armies, that relationship could have been put to good use in de-escalating the current crisis.

Arpita Hazarika

Dr Arpita Hazarika is a Gauhati University, Assam, India-based researcher. She is interested in refugee affairs, political economy, security and strategic affairs, and foreign policies of the Asia-Pacific region. With numerous foreign exposures, she has conducted research works on India-Bangladesh affairs.

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