Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) organized a webinar on “Revisiting Contemporary Peace and Security Challenges in the South Asian Region” on 27 June 2021. H. E. Dr A K Abdul Momen, MP, Honourable Foreign Minister, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh graced the occasion as the Chief Guest. Ambassador M Fazlul Karim, Chairman, BIISS chaired the webinar while Major General Md Emdad Ul Bari, ndc, psc, te, Director General, BIISS delivered the welcome address. Five distinguished scholars made presentations on various crucial security challenges in the South Asian region.
Insightful discussion by the designated speakers was followed by a lively open discussion where senior officials from Bangladesh government, retired ambassadors, representatives from different foreign missions, businessmen, members of academia, researchers, teachers from various universities and media representatives took part and expressed their views on the subject.
In his welcome address, Major General Md Emdad Ul Bari, ndc, psc, te, Director General, BIISS highlighted the civilizational aspects of South Asian nations—the eight countries, sharing deep cultural homogeneities as well as celebrating their differences. He expressed that, with the gradual shift of center of gravity of global power politics and the (re)rise of China, South Asia is becoming a hub of the 21st century’s economic opportunities and assuming growing centrality to global geopolitical calculations. The Director General mentioned that Rohingya crisis, along with other contemporary issues in Myanmar, adds to the existing challenges. He also argued that the greatest challenge for this region would be tackling the renewed geopolitical rivalry and future conflicts in the post-Covid geostrategic landscape of the region.
In his Introductory Remarks, Ambassador M Fazlul Karim, Chairman, BIISS noted about the several challenges faced by the region. In addition to the socio-economic challenges like poverty, Ambassador Karim also focused on the bilateral issues and conflicts in the region. He expressed that the evolving situation in Myanmar, especially the ruthless persecution of the Rohingyas is a source of insecurity for the entire region. He also mentioned that COVID-19 has emerged as a profound threat affecting every aspect of human activity. Many countries have gone for measures like reducing workforce and paying lesser wages which has resulted in migrant workers from this region losing jobs. Ambassador Karim opined that the US’s growing interest in this area alongside its competition with China and the recent build back better world (B3WP) proposal as opposed to the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will make this region more susceptible to instability and insecurity.
Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, informed the audience that the history of international relations of this subcontinent started in 1757 when the British East India Company colonized the Indian subcontinent. Dr Ahmed highlighted that after decolonization, globalization came to the forefront and changed capitalism in a remarkable way, since for the first time in the history of capitalism, production became international. He explained the development momentum in South Asia before and after the pandemic to show a clearer picture, where some of the South Asian countries including Bangladesh were doing extraordinarily good performances. He referred to the Quad, B3WP and BRI and opined that there is no competition or conflict but an “incommensurable competition”. The BRI is absolutely state-centric while the B3WP looks forward to developing a relationship beyond the state and with the civil society. To answer what will Bangladesh do in this scenario, Professor Ahmed referred to a significant Foreign Policy principle of the country that stems from the June 1970 Awami League Manifesto—the basic principles of ‘friendship to all and malice towards none”. He hoped for a continuation of the “growth without enmity” principle in the future.
Mr Md Monirul Islam, Additional Inspector General of Police, Bangladesh Police, in his presentation titled, “Recent Trends in Terrorism and Violent Extremism in the South Asian Region” stated that Bangladesh has traditionally been reputed to be an inclusive, secular and tolerant society with sustained communal harmony among Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and other communities. He also highlighted the crime-terror nexus where home-grown terrorists in Bangladesh, like many international terrorist groups, are involved in various crimes, including extortion, counterfeiting Bangladeshi currency, robbery, tainting gold, and so on. The sufferings of the Rohingyas have attracted both local and international militants and they are using the atrocities against the Muslims in Myanmar as a mobilisation argument. Mr Islam then compared Bangladesh’s position with other South Asian countries as per the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2020 where Bangladesh has ranked 33rd out of 163 countries. He informed the audience that in South Asia, Bangladesh ranks second among the eight countries in the region that demonstrates Bangladesh’s success in countering terrorism and violent extremism.
Dr Rashed Uz Zaman, Professor, Department of International Relations, in his presentation illustrated the inter and intra-state conflicts in South Asia, which includes Sino-Indian, Indo-Pak border conflict, as well as Myanmar-Bangladesh border issues. Unlike India’s LoC with Pakistan, LAC with China has never been depicted in the map. He noted that, since 2000, the ambiguity of LAC has led to an increase in “transgressions'' in areas where the two sides differ. Dr Zaman then highlighted that the Indian Army’s deployment and high state of operational alert along the disputed line of LAC in eastern Ladakh is likely to become permanent for the foreseeable future to foreclose any further military action by China. While discussing the Indo-Pak border dispute, he mentioned that the India-Pakistan near-war of February-March 2019 highlighted India’s ongoing evolution in strategic thinking and practices since its emergence in 1998 as an overt nuclear weapon possessor. He believes that India’s newfound risk acceptance is particularly troubling in the light of Pakistan embracing the idea of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) over the last decade. Regarding Myanmar, he noted that the country’s nation-building project has failed for decades, leaving behind a landscape of endemic armed conflict and a country that has never truly been whole. After the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, an entirely new dynamic emerged in Rakhine State: the rise of the Arakan Army set on achieving self-determination for the state’s Rakhine-speaking Buddhist community. In Rakhine State, the Arakan Army expands its de facto administration; and in the eastern uplands, old and new militia groups strengthen their ties to transnational organized crime networks.
Brigadier General Monirul Islam Akhand, ndc, psc, in his presentation “Peacekeeping Challenges in the Present Time: Bangladesh Perspective”, mentioned that the UN mission today has become very challenging and volatile as armed groups opposing the peace process are getting well-equipped, heavily armed, mobile, and capable of using advanced technology (Unmanned aerial vehicles). He gave an overview of Bangladesh’s participation in the UN peacekeeping missions highlighting that more than 1,42,790 personnel from Bangladesh Army, 7,547 from Air Force, 6,012 from Navy and 19,862 from Police have participated in the UN peacekeeping mission so far. He also noted the female peacekeepers’ participation in the UN, where Bangladesh is playing a leading role. Bangladesh started to send female doctors in 1995, staff officers in 2005 and soldiers in 2019 and has created history by deploying the first-ever female contingent commander in a UN mission. He also touched upon other challenges including the budget constraints in the UN, hostility against peacekeepers and the physical environment of the mission areas. Finally, he stressed on creating the right mindset to decrease the number of casualties in the mission areas and the preparedness of the Bangladesh Army to meet the challenges.
M Ashique Rahman, Research Fellow, BIISS, in his presentation titled “Covid-19 and Geopolitical Changes in South Asia” pointed out the potential change in the global leadership caused by the Trump Administration’s disinterest to assume the responsibility while China has increased its assertiveness to take up the role as an alternative power. He noted the rise of competition between several countries to increase their geopolitical aggrandizement. He highlighted India’s increased engagement with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka under the aegis of SAARC to raise fund to combat Covid-19 together, which had not been materialized eventually. Mr Rahman opined that vaccine is now a means to exert influence and an instrument for political and diplomatic leverage for the countries. He also talked about the increased significance of boundary and border control, both physically and psychologically, as Covid-19 compelled the countries to undertake reverse course on border control in order to ensure safety from physical connectivity. He informed the audience about Beijing’s plans to extend its financial support towards public health and vaccine development through the Health Silk Road (HSR) and hoped for a better utilization of the purpose.
H E Dr A K Abdul Momen, MP, Honourable Foreign Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in his address as Chief Guest noted that, over the years, states understood the value of multilateral cooperation and, conversely, the price of non-cooperation against the challenges. He opined that South Asia as a region needs to decipher the challenges and opportunities that might emerge from the new systemic shifts in order to navigate through the troubled water of an impulsive global order. He expressed that amidst the ‘global divide’ on vaccine procurements, Bangladesh flags a largely successful ‘vaccine diplomacy’ campaign to ensure vaccine doses from multiple sources from the very outset of the vaccine production. Addressing the Rohingya Crisis, he elaborated how an internal matter for Myanmar, now has destabilized the regional tranquility of South and Southeast Asia and triggered a global outcry. He hoped that world community would act assertively on severe restrictions of movement, health care, education, access to mobile and internet and livelihood opportunities in Rakhine.
In the concluding remarks, Ambassador Karim highlighted that issues like major power competition, the Rohingya crisis, COVID-19, and cyber security need a global response. He added that special efforts should be made to change all that and move to a new era of enhanced cooperation and integration in order to strengthen peace and stability in the region.