There seems to be a flawed tendency in sections of Bangladeshi civil society, media, and intelligentsia of almost all hue to readily put military options, of whatever kind, off the table when it comes to the Rohingya crisis.
People of this cross-cutting category get prematurely worried about the outcome of any sort of military conflict in an absurd fear-mongering and cowardice way, without much objective assessment, and that actually emboldens an adversary who is, in reality, not extraordinarily stronger than us, nor has the potential to get much stronger in future than what they are now.
This is not to advocate the idea that Bangladesh, at this unprepared stage, should start wielding its sword; but ruling out military options in the mid or long term, if the problem persists, would send a wrong signal to the adversary, own population, allies, and the persecuted community.
The adversary will have a free hand and may commit further atrocities without hesitation, and create even graver problems for Bangladesh.
Had Bangladesh been just as strong as the Myanmar militarily, who are economically much smaller than us, they wouldn’t have dared to push half a million Rohingya into Bangladesh.
The language of power
It’s a recurring thing. They caused similar exodus several times in the past and if things go the way they did, more repetitions are likely in the future. Myanmar didn’t take a big part of the past refugees back and has already substantially cleansed northern Rakhine of the Rohingya people.
It’s true that the military option has to come at the end and in combination with diplomatic pressurisation, when there is no other way left. In that too, there are quite a few varieties.
There are some strong reasons as to why Bangladesh should not rule out any variety of the military options.
Firstly, when you have a militarised neighbour who won’t listen to civilised language of diplomacy, they ought to be communicated with the language they understand.
A state that unleashes lethal force on the weakest section of its population will probably listen to the language of power.
Secondly, Bangladesh is four times the size of Myanmar’s economy in terms of nominal GDP and more than twice in purchasing power. With just 1.8% of the country’s GDP going to defence as opposed to Myanmar’s more than 4%, we can afford to increase defence spending without much socio-political backlash.
Myanmar, already a high defense spending country, won’t have much leverage in this regard. Even if Myanmar increases their spending through some jingoistic fervour, it will be unsustainable economically, politically, and internationally in the mid to long term.
They are already condemned by the international community, barring few countries and in case of any escalation, other than China, its other supporters are likely to desert it — thanks to Myanmar’s long, reclusive, undemocratic, and military-ruled past, including suppression of various minorities throughout its post-colonial history.
Moreover, there are several dozen rebel groups in various corners of Myanmar, most of whom are way stronger than the Rohingya insurgents. The stronger ones hold several thousand square kilometres of free areas.
The old others will definitely take their chance if Tatmadaw gets bogged down in the smaller patch of land in northern Rakhine. Fighting these multifarious ethnic insurgencies in several fronts is a big disadvantage for Tatmadaw.
With regards to international support, materially, India is unlikely to help Myanmar. They would rather be neutral. However, Bangladesh can probably count a bit on the future non-BJP Indian government, which isn’t unlikely after BJP’s demonetisation, GST, and economic growth debacle.
Russia has no ideological or emotional bondage with Myanmar. It just considers Myanmar as a reasonably good buyer of its weapons and armaments. Bangladesh has the capacity to become even a better buyer and hence, it’s possible to lure the Russians away.
Bangladesh will have to enhance its air power, and Russian MIG-29 and Sukhoi are the affordable state-of-the-art multi-role air machines currently available in the international market.
With regards to land force, Bangladesh will need more quality tanks, artillery guns, helicopter gunships etc for the army, and an increase in numbers of the fighting divisions coupled with harder training, just in case they have to face the battle-hardened divisions of Tatmadaw.
The Bangladesh Navy should be able to prevent any attempted naval blockade by the Myanmar navy. However, some tactical additions will be necessary.
The aim of Bangladesh’s defense preparation can still be defensive, but in an adequate way. In that case, the Myanmar army won’t be able to achieve enough force ratio in the Arakan sector to launch any offensive against Bangladesh, if at all, especially after keeping enough force deployed against rebels.
Bangladesh military may not need to do much on its own other than power projection. Natural and widely accepted result of any long persecution and expulsion of a community is insurgency.
The Rohingya already had few such groups in the past and still have one or two small operational ones. Due to the current global anti-jihadi sentiment, a rebel group will enjoy lesser support if they have an Islamic label. This is also the dilemma of Bangladesh, in providing any sort of support to such groups.
Some Rohingya have started to understand this and in future more will probably fall in the line. It is very likely that the secular or moderate ones will take lead in the armed struggle for their rights and enjoy a much greater support from the international community.
An extraordinary and long support from China for Myanmar and similar support for Bangladesh from the Islamic world and the West have the danger of initiating a costly proxy conflict.
However, how far will China go to support an unjust cause has to be analysed especially when it aspires to become the new leader of Asia and join global leadership.
Bangladesh is likely to have the options and leverage at various stages to make the stakes higher or lower, and settle for something suitable at a given time and situation.
Limitations and advantages will be on all sides.
Bangladesh has dealt with the Rohingya issue patiently and with modesty over several decades, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a manipulative creation of Myanmar’s dispensations to cleanse two million ethnic Rohingya population of Rakhine and push them into an already overpopulated Bangladesh.
Bangladesh should know to play dirty, at least at some appropriate stage, if Myanmar keeps playing dirty. It becomes dangerous for a nation when its gentleness is taken as its weakness.
Any form of armed conflict is undesirable, which is otherwise a political problem. However, there are some times of reckoning when ruling out armed retaliation isn’t an option. Clausewitz said many decades back, “Warfare is nothing but continuation of politics by other means.”
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a retired army officer and a freelance commentator on politics and international relations. He currently works at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).