Bangladesh-Myanmar Border Skirmishes: Who, What and Why

20 Jun, 2014    ·   4524

Dibya Shikha analyses the various issues revolving the recent border clash between Bangladesh and Myanmar

Dibya Shikha
Dibya Shikha
Research Intern
In the recently concluded Director General-level conference between Bangladesh and Myanmar in Naypyidaw, although both countries resolved to maintain peace and tranquility on the border – after exchanging gunfire along the border – many questions still remain to be addressed.

Why did these clashes begin, and what aggravated them further? Were they just isolated border tiffs or a calculated risk by Myanmar? What are the potential larger implications of the recent scuffle for the bilateral?

What prompted the border clash?
Both the governments have provided differing accounts of the reasons for the clashes. Dhaka claimed that the Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) killed one soldier of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an ambush on 28 May. Dhaka also claims that later, the BGP once again began a ‘unprovoked attack’ when negotiations regarding returning of the body of the slain trooper was underway – triggering fresh gunfight along the border.

Conversely, Myanmar accused that clashes along the border were started by Bangladesh when armed members of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) – founded in 1980 for protecting the rights of the Rohingya people in Myanmar – allegedly operating from Bangladeshi territory, tried to enter Myanmar. Naypyidaw explained that the BGP fired on two men because they were wearing yellow camouflage unlike the Guards’ official uniform. These clashes occurred at a time when there already were tensions along the border following the May 17 incident where members of the BGP were allegedly attacked by members of the RSO. Myanmar stated that it would not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty and would make every attempt to prevent illegal border crossing from Bangladesh.

Recent violence on the border is indicative of growing lawlessness in the region. The Bangladesh-Myanmar border is known for criminal activities, including human trafficking, arms and drugs smuggling, and robbery. Additionally, the existence of improvised explosive devices in the border areas also created a trust deficit between the two neighbours. Border guards from both sides have been accused of being deeply entrenched in corrupt activities and exploitation of people living in the bordering areas, which frequently results in minor border tiffs; but sometimes taking form of a larger standoff.

Isolated Incident or a Calculated Risk?
The Bangladesh-Myanmar border has been volatile, porous and problematic since the British colonial era. Waves of ethnic violence two years ago in the Rakhine region have left this area segregated on religious lines which further aggravates the border tension. Myanmar created this border crisis with Bangladesh to gain leverage in the power struggle and divert international community’s attention from its domestic political developments.

It cannot be a sheer coincidence that the border crisis started the same day when the draft of four religious conversion bills were published in Myanmar’s newspapers – that require getting permission from local authorities before converting to other religions – and resumption of Myanmar’s parliamentary session. These proposed bills were severely criticised by civil society organisations as undemocratic and discriminatory. Hence, border skirmishes were an attempt by the Myanmar government to galvanise people’s support for the proposed legislation by dividing them on religious lines.

The border crisis was not a random incident. Prior to every election, tensions along the 270-kilometer border with Bangladesh have been escalated by the Myanmarese government. In 2009, a similar situation was created along the border by Myanmar via fencing and reinforcement of the border in the run up to the 2010 elections. Now, the border issue has come up again in the name of harbouring of the RSO by Bangladesh, for putting the BGP in a positive light to gain brownie points in the 2015 elections in Myanmar.

Moreover, after the latest census in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people were stripped off their identity and recognised as ’Bengalis’ illegally migrated from Bangladesh, the initiation of the border gunfight was another effort by Myanmar to negate its responsibility towards the Rohingyas and put the ball in Bangladesh’s court for finding a solution to illegal migration.

Larger Implications on the Bilateral
Dhaka and Naypyidaw asserted that the recent clashes are not indications of larger trends but are just isolated incidents due to misunderstandings on the border. Both countries officially stated that border incidents would not damage diplomatic relations. Myanmar has displayed a friendly gesture for improving ties with Bangladesh by returning 30 Bangladeshis arrested for illegally crossing the border.

Both sides agreed to set up a border liaison office for curbing cross-border crimes and to educate people residing in border areas about the demarcation. Both countries also declared that they will start a security dialogue to discuss and resolve the problems of the border areas. Thus, Dhaka and Naypyidaw governments are in no mood to further stretch the hostility on their shared frontier.

Besides, the neighbouring countries’ bone of contention is problem of insurgent groups such as the RSO that allegedly operate from border areas in Bangladesh. Though Dhaka bluntly rejected the existence of the RSO or any rebellious groups in Bangladesh, Myanmar’s question that if not the RSO then who is ambushing and attacking the BGP from BangladeshI territory? Hence, both countries have to engage in constructive dialogue for reaching a solution for this issue.