On September 16, an 18-year-old Rohingya boy was killed, and five others injured when mortar shells fired from Myanmar fell and exploded in the no-man’s land near Bandarban’s Tumbru Bazar border area. Around 4,000 Rohingyas are reported to be living in this area.
Shells have been landing on the Bangladeshi side of the border over the last few weeks and so far, Bangladesh’s response has been rather mild. Soon after the death of the Rohingya teenager in the shelling, Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry summoned Myanmar’s Ambassador in Dhaka Aung Kyaw Moe to protest against the shelling and the violation of Bangladesh’s airspace.
Myanmar’s ambassador blamed the Arakan Army for firing shells and bullets into the Bangladeshi side of the border. He avoided taking questions from the Bangladeshi media.
Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army is reported to have escalated in Northern Rakhine and Chin states since early August.
“We lodged a strong protest note against the violations of air and land space and warned Myanmar that such actions should not be repeated,” Rear Admiral (retired) Khurshed Alam, secretary of the Maritime Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. Pointing out that “the conflict between Arakan Army and Myanmar military” is an “internal matter” of Myanmar and how Myanmar chose to “solve it” was up to that country, he stressed that shells falling into Bangladesh was not acceptable.
“No mortar shells or bullets should land on our side. You have to take responsibility for that,” he said.
“If even a brickbat lands on the Bangladesh side [of the border], it is a violation of international rules. Myanmar has to shoulder the responsibility,” said Major General (retired) Abdur Rashid, executive director at the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies.
“As we do not want conflict, our efforts are underway to find a peaceful solution with Myanmar. We will do everything,” said Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal. “We have repeatedly warned Myanmar through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but they did not heed the warnings.” He said that Bangladesh would inform the United Nations if Myanmar did not halt the firing near the Bangladesh border.
This escalation in tension along its border with Myanmar will impact Bangladesh and the region in various ways.
First, it will impact the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is sheltering 1.2 million Rohingya who escaped the genocidal violence unleashed on them by the Myanmar military. This refugee population has become a major concern for Bangladesh. Dhaka has been engaging in talks with Myanmar to find ways to repatriate Rohingya back to Myanmar. However, the repatriation process has not yet begun as Myanmar’s military regime has laid down conditions for repatriation, indicating unwillingness on its part to take the Rohingya back.
The current border tension will impact repatriation efforts. As Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, an international relations expert based in Dhaka, has argued, Myanmar may be aiming to create a chaotic situation along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border so that repatriation will be delayed and forgotten.
Second, Bangladesh-Myanmar tensions will impact subregional cooperation in BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), an organization of member states including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, which are Bay of Bengal littorals. BIMSTEC came into being in 1997 but it was only in 2022 that member-states adopted a long-overdue charter. At a time when SAARC is not functioning due to the adversarial India-Pakistan relationship, countries in the region were looking to BIMSTEC to achieve the benefits of cooperation. Such hopes could be dashed if the Bangladesh-Myanmar tension along the border escalates.
Analysts are also pointing out that China’s geopolitical compulsions may be behind the rising tensions along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. With India and the U.S. pushing Bangladesh to join the Quad, China is keen that Bangladesh stays neutral and has asked Dhaka to join its nascent Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI).
During his visit to Dhaka in the first week of August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had extensive discussions with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Geopolitical issues are said to have been the main item on the agenda of the discussions.
A leading Bangladeshi political analyst told The Diplomat that there are strong links between China and the Myanmar junta and China wields considerable influence over the regime. It is possible that China is behind the recent tensions along the Bangladesh border, the analyst said, adding that through the shelling into Bangladesh China is signaling that it can create trouble for Bangladesh if it wants via the Myanmar border.