Engaging with the Myanmar Military Regime?

Published: 24 Feb 2021

Shakil Mahmud

In its editorial titled “The backsliding” on February 2 in 2021, The Indian Express advised the government of India, “It must continue its engagement with Myanmar, and leverage its influence with the Army to persuade it to step back”. Although the influential newspaper suggested Indian engagement with the military leadership in Myanmar for reviving democratic process in the nation, in reality it is a façade for keeping India engaged in the country for geopolitical purpose. The paper further adds, “History has, unfortunately, repeated itself in Myanmar. In 1990, unable to countenance a sweeping election victory for the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy, the military seized power in a coup and imprisoned the then newly minted political leader for pretty much the next two decades. The Tatmadaw has done it again, 31 years later, at a time when it was believed that Myanmar had turned a corner.” 

Yes, the political landscape in Myanmar has dramatically changed with the ousting of the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Following the military coup, international community particularly the western nations have condemned or at least have expressed deep concerns at the new political development. Threats of sanctions, diplomatic rebuke, cutting ties with the military, withholding of aid to the country, and snapping business links with the Tatmadaw owned enterprises are some of the concrete measures that many countries have already declared. However, the Myanmar coup leaders under the leadership of Min Aung Mlaing remain defiant. It is clear that the military junta will stay in power for an indefinite period or in worst case they would share power in an old formula retaining their upper hand in security and foreign policy matters. 

Meanwhile, the streets of Myanmar have been witnessing unprecedented participation of Myanmar citizens from every corner in protests against the military coup. Despite the suppression and repression of the protesters, the movement continues to create pressure on the military regime in the country. It also encourages a large section of international community to take measures against the ruling Tatmadaw. However, the Tatmadaw looks unnerved and focused on its goal to run the country with an absolute grip on all facets of power. Over the decades, the Tatmadaw developed a self-conception about its competences, its pervasive influence in all sectors, while individual military elites took their privileges for granted. The Tatmadaw used to set the legal parameters and procedures for both administrative process and national peace building. In order to keep its leadership on board, the military had been part and parcel of adaptations to the needs of the process and make compromises. The absolute power of the Tatmadaw did see some decline in the decade of 2010s that has been adequately reversed through the February 2021 military coup. In this situation what would be the policy of Bangladesh?

One of the strategic options that Bangladesh may pursue is to engage with the military leadership in Myanmar for a variety of reasons ranging from economic to geopolitics to the repatriation of the Rohingyas. The 271-km border between the two countries and as common littoral states of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh and Myanmar are destined to cooperate with each other. The Rohingya crisis is another critical source of compulsion for Bangladesh to pursue a path of engagement with the military leadership in Myanmar. The larger picture of geostrategy and economic shifts in the Bay of Bengal region where a new great game is on full display requires Bangladesh pursuing a cool blooded and long-term strategy to face a complex array of antagonistic and allied powers in this geopolitical nerve center of the world. 

Myanmar has successfully wooed countries like China, Japan and India for decades in spite of bitter relations between China and India and China and Japan. There is no chance in foreseeable future that China, India, Japan and the ASEAN will abandon Myanmar regardless of political regimes in the country or even Myanmar’s aggressive behavior within and outside. Externally, Bangladesh has also succeeded in such kind of balanced approach of foreign policy. In the case of Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, the situation is really complicated and puzzling. Nevertheless, the pursuit of the policy of engagement with the Myanmar military with apparent risk of some degree of local and global criticisms is an inescapable imperative for Bangladesh. 

Although it is an extremely challenging and delicate task, Bangladesh has already made its first step in a right direction. Bangladesh’s response to the military coup in Myanmar has been pragmatic and superbly measured. To reiterate the statement of Bangladesh against the coup in Myanmar, “Bangladesh firmly adheres to and promotes democratic ethos. We hope that the democratic process and constitutional arrangements will be upheld in Myanmar. As an immediate and friendly neighbour, we would like to see peace and stability in Myanmar.” This has not given any chance or opportunity to the military junta to exploit the situations. Rather it might have contributed to an unusual conciliatory remark made by the head of the current military government General Min Aung Mlaing about the repatriation of the Rohingyas in his televised speech to the nation. 

Currently, Bangladesh may focus on the following steps towards long term engagement with the military regime in Myanmar. 

Reorganizing and reorienting the Bangladesh Embassy in Myanmar to attain the strategic goal of Bangladesh in the country and the region,

Exchanges and training (where demanded) lay the bases for relationships. Particularly building non-strategic capacities and civil-military relations according to international standards, introducing norms for international operations, as well as a gradual strengthening of mil-to-mil relations, can help to build up trust,

In order to build more trust, engagement should be based on soft issues that suit Myanmar’s needs that may serve as a starting point, 

Supporting the Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Myanmar when opportunity arises,

Supporting disaster relief or management operations when needed,

Establishing more regularized inter-military relations, such as sending military delegation and military attaches, can help to formalize contacts, maximize exposure and observation, and can be regarded as a midterm goal. This mil-to-mil engagement is undeniably beneficial.

Identifying “moderates” in the Myanmar Military who would be more willing to interact on issues of mutual benefit.

Recalibrating the Look East policy of Bangladesh in a strategic fashion to emphasize the sources of threats in the region.

Finally, there can be more specific measures to deepen engagement with the military in Myanmar as situation evolves. Flanked by powerful neighbors, Myanmar’s military leaders are focused on building an Army, Navy and Air Force with modern and advanced hardware to deter threats. As the Myanmar military is seeking to modernize its forces, and sees its mission as holding the country together, keeping insurgents at bay and safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, it may remain open to pragmatic and mutually beneficial cooperation from its neighbor, Bangladesh. Bangladesh is the only neighbor of Myanmar with whom it can work on equal terms. The same is true for Bangladesh. While pursuing engagement with the Military regime in Myanmar, Bangladesh must keep other options open. Alternative channels of communications through moderate political leaders and civil society actors in Myanmar must be kept on board. Appropriate Myanmar policy and strategy should be formulated at the national level.  

Shakil Mahmud: Writer & Columnist

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