Asia - Pacific

Spillover of Myanmar conflict strikes fear into Bangladeshis living along border

Bangladeshi border residents face the devastating consequences of the Myanmar army’s fight with the Arakan Army group

Faisal Mahmud  | 09.02.2024 - Update : 10.02.2024
Spillover of Myanmar conflict strikes fear into Bangladeshis living along border

- From stray bullets to a refugee influx, Bangladeshi border residents face the devastating consequences of the Myanmar army’s fight with the Arakan Army group

- Long seeking to repatriate over 1M Rohingya refugees it has been hosting since 2017, Bangladesh may now have to contend with a fresh influx from Myanmar

- Even as the situation on the border continues to spiral, Bangladeshi officials have voiced discontent as contacts with junta-run Myanmar have proven fruitless    

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Haunted by the roar of gunfire and mortar blasts, Abdul Gafur strains to recall the last time such violence shattered the peace near his home in a southeastern Bangladesh border village.  

Life in Modhampara, nestled on the Ghumdhum border with Myanmar, has always been precarious, but the current escalation feels different.

"It's like the sky itself is raining down on us," Gafur told Anadolu, his voice heavy with despair. "The relentless sound of gunfire is unbearable. We can't stay here any longer."

For the past several weeks, Bangladesh's border with Myanmar has become a battleground for the Southeast Asian nation's military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, and an armed group known as the Arakan Army. Stray mortar shells and gunfire have forced Bangladeshi villagers in the border areas of Bandarban and Cox's Bazar districts to abandon their homes and seek refuge.

In nearby Jalpaituli, where two villagers have been killed by a mortar shell from the other side of the border, the exodus has begun as terrified families flee their bamboo and tarpaulin homes.

As they seek refuge in government shelters, they must take the single winding road connecting these villages through the hills, but also leading to the volatile border, a stark reminder of the conflict.

Taking refuge in one of these shelters, Nur Jahan, a woman in her sixties, feels a deep injustice. "Police brought us here, saying it's unsafe near the border," she sighs. "But why must we leave our homes? This fight isn't ours."

Around a dozen schools in the border areas have already shut down indefinitely. Ferry services from Teknaf to the tourist hotspot of Saint Martin's Island have also been halted over security concerns. Tourists stranded on the island, which is also the southernmost part of the country, are scrambling for ways to return to the mainland.

"It's like Bangladesh is paying a hefty price for a conflict which is not of our own," Gafur Uddin Chowdhury, an elected government representative from Cox's Bazar, told Anadolu.

"The worst part is, we don't know when it will end," he added.   

Communication gulf with Myanmar

In the capital Dhaka, Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry already summoned Myanmar's envoy U Aung Kyaw Moe and lodged a strong protest to the spillover of the violence.

Bangladesh, no stranger to the effects of conflict and ethnic violence in its neighbor, currently hosts the world's largest refugee camp, with over 1 million Muslim Rohingya who fled a 2017 UN-designated "genocide" by the Myanmar army.

Their bilateral relationship, already tense due to the years-long presence of the refugees and Myanmar's refusal to repatriate them, has been made even more complex with the outbreak of a full-scale civil war within Myanmar in May 2021.

The recent violence is unique, however, in that it is the first time that nearly 300 Myanmar officials, including border security forces, police, and government staff, have fled across the border.

After initially planning an airlift, Bangladesh now mulls sending those 300 Myanmar officials and border guards back by sea, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told journalists Wednesday.

Meanwhile, after an influx of Myanmar officials in the past week, Bangladesh has sealed its border to prevent further arrivals. Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud has told Anadolu that Bangladesh cannot "handle the burden of Myanmar's internal conflict anymore."

Over a dozen new Rohingya have already entered Bangladesh, seeking refuge in camps near Teknaf. Hundreds more have gathered near the border, looking for passage across the Naf River into Bangladesh, local media has reported.

The prospect of starting the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh — which has already failed three times — is now even bleaker. Bangladesh's Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commissioner Mizanur Rahman told Anadolu that the fresh violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state "practically shut down any meaningful prospect of Rohingya repatriation."

"We are now trying to ensure that there is no more influx of Myanmar nationals," said Rahman.   

'Rogue state'

Government officials in Dhaka also express their frustration over the diplomatic impasse with Myanmar.

Talking to Anadolu, Bangladesh's State Minister for Information Mohammad A. Arafat says "meaningful dialogue" is difficult to have with Myanmar, ruled by a military junta since its civilian government was toppled in 2021.

"If everything is being decided by the army chief there, then there can't be proper communication with them," says Arafat, adding that summoning Myanmar's ambassador in Dhaka proved fruitless.

"When you have a rogue state like Myanmar in which the nation's military engages in war with different armed groups, you can't do much about it. Even people in China's bordering area with Myanmar got killed," Arafat said.

Back in 2018, at least three Chinese nationals were killed in the aftermath of clashes along the border with Myanmar. China's special envoy on Asian affairs Sun Guoxiang met with Myanmar army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing after the incident and expressed Beijing's "serious discontent" on the matter.

Meanwhile, India, whose northeastern state of Mizoram also shares a border with Myanmar, has taken action as the recent chaos reaches its doorstep. Like in Bangladesh, India has been on the receiving end of hundreds of soldiers crossing the border, prompting it to swiftly return them and tighten security measures, including potential border fencing and travel restrictions.

"This is actually a strategy of Tatmadaw," said Shahab Enam Khan, a professor of international relations at Jahangirnagar University, "The Burmese (Myanmar) military seems to be employing calculated plans of stoking border tensions, aiming to project itself as a formidable force to neighboring nations like India, China, and Bangladesh."

Khan believes the Tatmadaw's strategy to stoke border tensions aims to pressure neighboring governments into closer cooperation with Myanmar's military regime.

"But in Rakhine, Bangladesh's neighboring area of Myanmar, the grip of the central military is waning and the Arakan Army is appearing to be the dominant force.

"This puts Bangladesh into a major dilemma because if it wants to repatriate the Rohingya refugees, it has to sit with the Arakan Army, which is obviously a non-state actor," Khan said adding that international laws or institutions have no mandate for an independent state like Bangladesh to sit down with non-state actors.

Back in Ghumdhum, Nur Jahan simply wants to return home. "We can't live in our own home. Our children can't go to school. This can't go on," she said.

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