Tensions Along Border With Myanmar Shows Bangladesh’s Concern Over Rohingya Refugees

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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Since February, fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar Junta troops has caused significant travel disruptions to Saint Martin Island, a Bangladeshi-administered island located approximately nine miles (15 kilometers) off the coast of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The disruptions led to a food shortage on the island, and the Bangladeshi government responded by deploying naval and coast guard vessels around the island and calling for both sides to not fire rounds near the island.

Satellite imagery of Saint Martin’s Island (Photo: Sentinel Hub One)

Fighting Near Saint Martin Island and Transportation Disruptions

Disruptions to the Teknaf-Saint Martin’s Island route started in February as the AA and its allies in the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) captured territory and bases along the border. However, Bangladeshi authorities suspended operations in mid-June because of intense fighting between the two sides near the city of Maungdaw. For example, the fighting led to several Bangladeshi fishing and cargo boats being targeted by either side in recent weeks in the Mohana area of the Naf River estuary. The Junta also fired mortars and other artillery shells that landed in the channel between the island and the coast. Furthermore, the Bangladeshi Navy reported that “heavy deployments” of Myanmar naval vessels on the border occurred. At least one of the naval vessels and an AA position fired at each other, with the rounds impacting near the island.

Photo of the FB-Baro Awlia pierside at Saint Martin’s Island on June 14th (Photo: United News of Bangladesh)

The already sporadic disruptions, coupled with the recent suspension of the route, negatively impacted the supplies on the island, leading to a food shortage in mid-June. However, the local government chartered a cargo vessel, the FB-Baro Awlia, on the afternoon of June 14th to carry 225 tons provided by the local government and traders to the island. The vessel also carried 300 dry food packets, five cattle for Eid-ul-Azha, medical supplies, and three midwives. The vessel successfully reached the island later that evening.

Bangladesh’s Response

The Bangladeshi government responded to the recent fighting near the island in many ways. The local government modified the prohibition to allow ferries to use an alternative route to transport people and supplies to the island. The Bangladesh Foreign Affairs Ministry protested the Junta over the June 12th incident. The ministry also began discussions with the AA and Junta to prevent the fighting from spilling over into the area surrounding Saint Martin’s Island. The government began the talks between the two sides to also prevent Rohingya refugees from entering the island from Rahkine State. Bangladesh also asked boats to “hoist the national flag” when they are operating near Myanmar’s waters. The Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard also deployed vessels, including one Castle-class Guided Missile Corvette, to the area to protect citizens and deter the AA and the Junta from firing near the island.

One of the Bangladesh Navy’s Castle-class Guided Missile Corvette with naval team in foreground (Left) and a Bangladesh Coast Guard patrol vessel with coast guard team sailing near Saint Martin’s Island (Right) (Photo: X/@DefenseDtb)

Bangladesh’s outgoing Army Chief of Staff, General SM Shfiuddin Ahmed, said that retaliation was an option and that the military is on standby. Ahmed’s comment echoed Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s comments that Bangladesh will respond if they are attacked. However, the new Chief of Staff, General Waker-uz-Zaman, played down the comments, emphasizing “defense diplomacy” as a way to resolve the ongoing border crisis and that there is no “possibility of conflict between the two militaries.” Zaman said that Bangladesh does not “have any issues with Myanmar apart from the Rohingya issue.” He also said that the two militaries are constantly communicating and “trying to solve the Rohingya issue in a peaceful way.”

Bangladesh Concerned About Violence, Refugee Influx

Bangladesh’s concern is that the ongoing fighting in Rakhine State will negatively impact the country’s border region in various ways, specifically the potential for a new wave of potentially hundreds of Rohingya refugees to enter the country and the potential for its citizens to be killed during the clashes.

Bangladesh currently hosts approximately one million Rohingya refugees in camps throughout Cox’s Bazar District. However, the country stated that it would not accept any additional Rohingya because of the significant burden it places on Bangladesh’s economy and infrastructure. In February, the Bangladeshi Minister for Road Transport and Bridges, Obaidul Quader, said that the country would not allow any more Rohingya to enter the country because “they have already become a burden for us,” referring to the significant socio-economic strain that the refugees have on the country, especially in the southern region. Furthermore, the socio-economic strain is compounded because of the reduction in funding to provide humanitarian aid to the Rohingya population. The government would have tremendous difficulty covering the shortfall required to care for the population.

The shortfall means Bangladesh would need to either force the Junta to begin the repatriation process for Rohingya or integrate the ethnic group into local society. However, Myanmar has yet to begin the process because the government did not meet any of the refugees’ demands, such as providing citizenship to the group. Another factor that would inhibit the repatriation process is the AA’s reluctance to make any agreement that would allow the Rohingya to return to Rakhine State. The AA controls a large amount of territory, which allows the group to become a key player in the region. The organization, however, wants to use the territory to create an ethnic homeland for the Rakhine ethnic group. Any reparation for the Rohingya would negatively affect the plans and cause a large number of people to stop supporting the group.

Bangladesh is also concerned that the ongoing fighting will potentially kill its citizens as they travel into Bangladeshi territory. Since February, there have been several instances of stray rounds landing near the island that originated from fighting along the coast of Rahkine State. Furthermore, both sides fired at Bangladeshi barges and ships as they sailed near Saint Martin’s Island or along the coast because of a mistaken identity. The Bangladeshi military responded to the incidents by deploying naval vessels as a precautionary measure to protect citizens in the area. The government also held discussions with both sides to decrease the fighting in the area. However, Bangladesh also understands that the Junta will likely break any agreement and conduct attacks against the AA and the PDF positions along the coast. These attacks would cause the AA to renew offensives against the Junta in the area and other locations along the border.