The Myanmar Conflict and Regional Security: A New Challenge in the Offing

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On October 27, 2023, an operation, spearheaded by the Three Brotherhood Alliance – consisting of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – and its allies, was launched against the Myanmar Junta government. Since then, the Border Guard Police (BGP) and the Myanmar Armed Forces, popularly known as the Tatmadaw, have been engaged in fierce battles against the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in the Rakhine and Chin States. Resistance organizations in Myanmar that opposed the coup in February 2021 revived their violent struggle against the military dictatorship in late 2023, despite harsh military repression. The alliance has so far overrun almost all border outposts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, taken control of numerous towns like Paletwa and Pauktaw, defeated several Tatmadaw battalions, and amassed a sizeable quantity of military hardware. The situation has grown so dire that the government of Myanmar has been forced to declare a curfew in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital. The hundreds of resistance groups that had arisen since the military’s deadly crackdown on nonviolent protests against the coup exerted persistent and widespread pressure on the Myanmar military, which the allied forces were able to successfully exploit.

The conflict in Myanmar is already leading to increased cross-border violence, with armed groups or Rohingyas spilling over into bordering countries. Border security forces of bordering countries are faced with new challenges to prevent the infiltration of armed militants or the movement of displaced populations across the border. Instability in Myanmar can have broader regional implications, affecting the overall stability of Southeast Asia. The conflict can also be a threat to diplomatic relations between Myanmar and its neighboring countries if the violence spills across borders. This brief will shed light on the implications of the recent Myanmar conflict on regional security and stability. The following sections will discuss the disrupted border security within the bordering countries of Myanmar. The brief will also discuss, how this conflict further exacerbates and prolongs the ongoing Rohingya Crisis.

Bangladesh

Clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army have turned Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar into a battlefield. Bangladeshi villagers in the border districts of Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar have been forced to flee their houses due to gunfire and stray mortar shells. Fighting broke out between the Arakan Army and the military junta during the first week of February 2024. Mortal shells are falling into Bangladeshi territory, and so far have resulted in several injuries and at least two deaths and multiple injuries. According to Border Guard Bangladesh, some 264 members of Myanmar’s security force and border forces have broken into Bangladeshi territory to flee the ferocious combat. Bangladesh’s security forces were put on high alert along its 270-km border with the restive Rakhine state of Myanmar due to the growing threat, with special attention paid to the Naf River.

China

China’s recent attempts to mediate disputes between ethnic insurgents and the Myanmar government on its northern border are mostly driven by self-interest and are unlikely to have a major influence on the situation. When China called for peace talks between the military and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, the most recent of which took place on December 20, 2023, in Kunming: first, it also partially was to stop cyber fraud schemes that target Chinese citizens, and second, to restore stability to cross-border trade with Myanmar. The safety threats for those left stranded in Kokang’s Laukkai district in late December 2023 have increased due to the ongoing disputes in the area. China’s top priority is combating cybercrimes that originate from the border between China and Myanmar.

At the end of December 2023, Chinese nationals in the Laukkai district are once again urged to leave as soon as possible by the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar. China’s Belt and Road infrastructure-building program revolves around the region between Shan and the neighboring state of Rakhine, which faces the Bay of Bengal. So, it is for their own national interest that China needs to exert its influence on the ongoing conflict to stabilize the region as a means of ensuring seamless trade.

India and Thailand

India decided to revoke the free land movement agreement with Myanmar earlier in February, claiming an increase in border movement that is fueling security concerns. In order to protect the nation’s internal security and preserve the population of India’s northeastern states that border Myanmar, the free movement system was abandoned.

Ending a years-long free visa movement was a big step for India and it shows India’s growing concerns over the looming danger emanating from Myanmar. This move has implications for India’s diplomatic relations with Myanmar as well as security concerns. This decision can help in curbing illegal activities such as smuggling, human trafficking, and the movement of insurgents across the border. By strengthening border security, India aims to address security concerns in the northeastern states bordering Myanmar. This can have a positive impact as well and could potentially lead to improved stability for India’s diplomatic relations with its northeastern neighbors as well as Myanmar.

In an attempt to facilitate negotiations between the parties in the bordering country, Thailand intends to create a humanitarian safe zone at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing along its border with Myanmar by the end of February. Thailand may need to receive thousands of people escaping the violent violence that is still going on and that can lead to a security concern for the country. After the wave of violence across the country,  a recent Thailand-led humanitarian initiative can facilitate talks between the conflicting groups in Myanmar.

The Rohingya Crisis

The likelihood of the Rohingyas returning home anytime soon has decreased due to the intensifying conflict in Myanmar. According to officials from the foreign ministry, under a pilot program, approximately 12,000 Rohingyas were expected to return home in 2023; however, the plan was derailed, first by Cyclone Hamoon and then by the conflict between the armed opposition groups in Myanmar and the ruling military junta, which started in February 2021. In addition to the Rohingyas, the displaced population in Myanmar as a result of the conflict poses a significant threat. Since armed ethnic groups began this major offensive against the military in late October, an additional more than 500,000 Myanmar nationals have fled their homes.

On February 7, 2024, Bangladesh announced it would no longer allow any more Rohingyas from Myanmar to enter the country because letting the Rohingyas on its national border increasingly threatens its internal security. In January 2024, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for global efforts to facilitate the safe and dignified return of Rohingyas to Myanmar and urged the international community to act to guarantee the Rohingyas’ right to a decent life upon their return to their native land in Myanmar.

Implications For Regional Security

The conflict in Myanmar may lead to increased cross-border violence, with armed groups or displaced populations spilling over into bordering countries of Myanmar just like we have seen in the border region of Bangladesh. Border security forces of countries like Bangladesh, India, or even China may face challenges in preventing the infiltration of armed militants or the movement of displaced populations across the border. Ongoing conflict in Myanmar can trigger a refugee crisis, with people fleeing violence and seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Managing a large influx of displaced persons poses challenges to border security and can strain the resources of the bordering countries of Myanmar, potentially leading to social and economic tensions.

Currently, there are 2.8 million internally displaced people in Myanmar – 660,000 of whom have been displaced during the ongoing conflict – this crisis is likely to worsen at an alarming pace in the region. Border conflicts often provide opportunities for criminal networks to engage in human trafficking, smuggling, and other illicit activities. Neighboring countries may need to strengthen border security measures to counteract these criminal enterprises. The border conflict may disrupt trade and economic activities between Myanmar and its neighbors, affecting the flow of goods and services. For example, the armed conflict has caused a daily loss in bilateral trade between China and Myanmar of about $10 million. Economic instability in the region can indirectly affect border security as it may exacerbate social issues that could spill across borders.

The sovereignty of a state is compromised when armed elements operate within or across borders without the consent of the affected country. Some of the events at the border region of Bangladesh mentioned above reflect the audacity of the operations of armed groups from Myanmar. Myanmar’s neighbors may experience increased pressure on their border security forces to prevent unauthorized movements, leading to a strain on resources. The obvious need for heightened security measures impacts the ability of the bordering country to maintain control over its territory. The conflict may result in a humanitarian crisis, with increased pressure on neighboring countries to provide aid and assistance to those affected. Thailand is already playing that role and offering humanitarian assistance to those affected, intensifying efforts to resolve the Myanmar Crisis.  However, managing the humanitarian fallout can also strain border security resources and may require international cooperation, where the UN comes into play.

Way Forward

It is imperative for regional stakeholders to intensify dialogue and diplomatic initiatives in order to exert pressure on both the Myanmar military junta and the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), thereby preventing further exacerbation of regional tensions. These actors must engage in concerted efforts to encourage constructive dialogue and peaceful resolutions, fostering stability and harmony within the region. By bolstering diplomatic endeavors, they can collectively advocate for the cessation of actions that may escalate conflicts and exacerbate the already volatile situation. Additionally, it is crucial for these regional actors to actively promote mechanisms for conflict resolution and reconciliation, ensuring that the interests and well-being of all parties involved are safeguarded. Only through collaborative and persistent diplomatic endeavors can the region effectively address the challenges posed by the Myanmar junta and EAOs, ultimately promoting peace, security, and prosperity for all.

Besides, the countries affected by this conflict, directly or indirectly, need to encourage diplomatic dialogue between Myanmar and its neighboring countries to address the root causes of the conflict and find peaceful resolutions. Border security forces of the bordering countries may need to be vigilant against the spillover of ethnic or religious tensions that could lead to violence across borders. The countries need to come forward and facilitate international mediation efforts to promote a negotiated settlement that respects the sovereignty of all involved nations. Cooperation between the affected countries must be strengthened to share intelligence, coordinate border patrols, and prevent cross-border movements of armed groups or illegal activities.

Countries such as Bangladesh, China, and India need to establish joint mechanisms for communication and collaboration between border security forces to address security challenges effectively and collaborate on humanitarian assistance efforts to provide aid and support to displaced populations. The affected countries can develop joint strategies for displaced population management to ensure a coordinated response, minimizing the impact on the host country’s sovereignty. The ongoing conflict paints a somewhat grim picture of the possibility of future repatriation of Rohingyas but that does not mean it is not a viable option anymore and the two countries, Bangladesh and Myanmar, need to reach a middle ground.

Instability in Myanmar can have broader regional implications, affecting the overall stability of Southeast Asia. Neighboring countries need to collaborate on regional security initiatives to address the root causes of the conflict and prevent its spread.

– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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